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Telling white people the criminal justice system is racist makes them like it more

Unfortunately, whites are more likely to support stop-and-frisk when they're reminded of its racial impact.
Unfortunately, whites are more likely to support stop-and-frisk when they're reminded of its racial impact.
New York Daily News via Getty

America's criminal justice system disproportionately hurts people of color, particularly black and Hispanic men. Supporters of criminal-justice reform tend to point to that disparity as a good reason to change the system.

But as reforms move from proposals to actual bills, the key question is how to persuade the general public that change is needed. A new study suggests that highlighting racism in the criminal justice system is not the answer, and in fact pushes white voters in the opposite direction. Even when whites believe the current laws are too harsh, they're less likely to support changing the law if they're reminded that the current prison population is disproportionately black.

What the study found

The study, which was conducted by Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University and published in Psychological Science, consisted of two experiments.

The first experiment was conducted in San Francisco in 2012, when the state of California was considering a reform to its "three-strikes" law.  Researchers showed white commuters a short video that featured a series of inmate mugshots. One version of the video reflected the total prison population: 25-percent black. The other reflected the population imprisoned under the three-strikes law: 45-percent black.

Both groups agreed that the three-strikes law was too harsh. But if the video they'd seen had more black inmates in it, they were less likely to agree to sign a petition to change it. More than half of the first group signed the petition; only a quarter of the second group did.

In other words, according to the researchers, "the blacker the prison population, the less willing registered voters were to take steps to reduce the severity of a law they acknowledged to be overly harsh."

The second experiment involved asking white New Yorkers about the stop-and-frisk program — after telling some of them that the New York state prison population was 40 percent black, and the rest that New York City's prison population was 60 percent black. Both groups agreed that stop-and-frisk was punitive. But again, the group that heard the 60-percent statistic was substantially less likely to want to sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk.

What's behind the study

In both of the experiments in the new study, after receiving the information, participants ended up believing that blacks were even more overrepresented in prisons than they actually were. Even in the New York experiment, participants who were told that 60 percent of New York City prisoners were black later remembered that number as even higher.

In the study, whites intrinsically associated prison with black people. And they automatically associated prison, blackness, and crime. New Yorkers who were told that 60 percent of prisoners were black were more likely to say that they were worried about crime in their neighborhoods if stop-and-frisk were repealed — and the more worried they were about crime, the less likely they were to sign the petition.

One of the researchers told Stanford Report, "Most people likely assume that (mass incarceration) must be due to rising crime rates," which it isn't. But the study suggests that many whites also believe, on an intellectual level, that current criminal-justice policies are too harsh.

The question seems to be which instinct wins out: the belief that our prison system isn't fair, or the assumption that a prisoner must be a criminal. According to the study, when whites are primed to think of prisoners as black, it's the latter that wins out.

What the study builds on

There's already a body of psychological research showing that whites associate black people with criminality. The researchers mention some of this in the literature review for their study:

"Not only are Blacks strongly associated with violent crime, but also the more stereotypically Black a person's physical features are perceived to be, the more that person is perceived as criminal [...] Even in death-penalty cases, the perceived Blackness of a defendant is related to sentencing: the more Black, the more deathworthy."

And there have been other studies suggesting that reminding whites about racial disparities in criminal justice makes them like it more. One 2007 study looked at whether poll respondents were less likely to support the death penalty after hearing various arguments against it. It found that whites "actually become more supportive of the death penalty upon learning that it discriminates against blacks."

What the study means

As depressing as it is that telling white people about structural racism makes them support the structure more, what makes this study particularly interesting is that the criminal-justice reform movement isn't just made up of people concerned about racism. Some fiscal conservatives want to reform the system to spend less money on prisons; some cultural conservatives are motivated by Christian notions of mercy and forgiveness. And some of the states that have most successfully worked to reform their prison policies are red states.

The argument that prison should be reformed to save taxpayer dollars can seem a little bloodless. And it can lead to support for policies like private probation agencies that end up being just as repressive. But when it comes to persuading the public — at least the white public — that criminal-justice reform is a good idea, activists already have an idea of what works:

In the end, the financial bottom line might change more minds than racism.

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