A recent study suggests that, if you are white, and you are presented with evidence that our criminal justice system disproportionately targets black people, then you are more likely to support harsh criminal justice policies than if you were unaware of this evidence. According to a study by Rebecca Hetey, a post-doctoral fellow in Stanford’s Psychology department and Jennifer Eberhardt, her faculty advisor, informing white people that African Americans are significantly over-represented in the prison population “may actually bolster support for the very policies that perpetuate the inequality.”
Forty percent of the nation’s prison population is black, as compared to only 12 percent of the population as a whole.
To reach their conclusions, Hetey and Eberhardt conducted two experiments involving white subjects. In the first, white people were asked to watch one of two videos containing mug shots. In one video, 25 percent of the mug shots were pictures of black men, while in the other video, 45 percent of the mug shots depicted African American males. After watching the video, the subjects were then asked whether they would sign a petition calling for one of California’s strict sentencing laws to be eased.
The result: “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.”
In the second experiment, two groups of white New Yorkers were shown different statistical data about the racial makeup of the prison population. One group was shown data indicating that 40 percent of prisoners are black while the other group was shown that 60 percent are black. Once again, the group that was led to believe that fewer people in the criminal justice system are African Americans were more likely to support liberalizing criminal justice policies. In this case, the New Yorkers were asked if they would sign a petition calling for the end of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. Thirty-three percent of the subjects who were led to believe that fewer African Americans are incarcerated were willing to sign the petition. Only 12 percent of the other group were willing to do so.
As Hetey notes, this research could have profound implications for advocates seeking to convince voters — or, at least, white voters — to support less harsh criminal justice policy. “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.”