Research & Insights

Pointing Out Racial Bias in the Justice System Decreases Willingness to Fix It

A study out of Stanford University suggests that efforts that position the problem of mass incarceration as unfairly locking up African Americans may be doing more harm than good.

Published in the October 2014 issue of the journal Psychological Science, psychologists Rebecca C. Hetey and Jennifer L. Eberhardt describe how they tested different groups to see how perceived racial makeup of prison populations affect their support for reform. The researchers found that participants who perceived the prison population as “more Black” were less likely to support policy changes.

The first experiment involved reforming California’s three-strikes law. Sixty-two voters saw a video about the state’s prison system featuring mug shots of black and white inmates. Some participants saw a video comprising 25 percent black inmates, while others saw a video with 45 percent black inmates. The participants were then asked whether the three-strikes law was not punitive enough or too punitive on a sliding scale. They were then offered a chance to sign a petition seeking to reduce the severity of the law.

When shown the video featuring fewer black inmates, just over half of participants signed the petition. However, among participants who saw the video with more black inmates, only 27 percent were willing to sign.

A second study regarding New York City’s notorious stop-and-frisk law found similar results. One hundred and sixty-four white New Yorkers were shown information about the demographics of New York State’s prison inmates. The demographics were manipulated to show either 40 percent of the population as black or 60 percent as black. Participants read about the federal ruling in August 2013 that struck down stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional and then completed a survey asking about their thoughts on the law and their fear of crime. They were then given a chance to sign a petition supporting the elimination of stop-and-frisk.

Again, the researchers found that participants who believed the prison population to hold more African-Americans were less likely to sign the petition. When participants believed that the prison population was composed of fewer African-Americans, a third of them signed. However, only 12 percent of participants who believed the prison population was composed of more African-Americans were willing to sign. Importantly, people who believed the prison population to be composed of more African-Americans were also more concerned about crime.

“Many legal advocates and social activists assume that bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities will motivate people to fight inequality,” the researchers explain. “We demonstrate that exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities – even when the people agree such policies are too punitive.”

Psychological Science

Rebecca C. Hetey and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Stanford University

Posted: October 21, 2015
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