According to a study done by Stanford University published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, concluded that if white people are presented with evidence of crime rate statistics that show African-Americans represent 40 percent of the prison population, then they are more likely to support harsher criminal policies.
Stanford psychology researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found that when white people were told about these racial disparities, they reported being more afraid of crime and more likely to support the kinds of punitive policies that exacerbate the racial disparities.
The expansion of harsh policies – such as California’s Three Strikes law and similar measures by other states – has led the United States to have the largest per-capita prison population in the world.
“Most people likely assume this must be due to rising crime rates, but the explosion in the prison population is better explained by harsh criminal justice policies,” said Hetey, a postdoctoral scholar and the lead author on the study.
Hetey and Eberhardt, an associate professor of psychology, wanted to know whether making white people aware of racial disparities in incarceration would bolster or diminish their support for draconian policies.
Their first experiment unfolded at a train station near San Francisco. A white female researcher asked 62 white voters to watch a video containing mug shots of male inmates. Some of the participants saw a video in which 25 percent of the mug shots were of black men, while others saw a video in which the percentage of black men among the mug shots rose to 45 percent.
The participants then had an opportunity to sign a real petition aimed at easing the severity of California’s three-strikes law. “It seemed like a great opportunity – a real-life political issue – to test this question of whether blacker prison populations lead people to accept these more punitive policies,” Eberhardt said.
The results were clear. Over half of the participants who’d seen the mug shots with fewer black men signed the petition, whereas only 27 percent of people who viewed the mug shots containing a higher percentage of black inmates agreed to sign. This was the case regardless of how harsh participants thought the law was.
Hetey concluded that although many people feel exposing people to the racial disparities in policies would encourage people to fight for justice, it could have the reverse effect.
“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” according to Hetey. “But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”