Last summer after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a poll of Americans revealed something remarkable. While about two-third of African Americans continued to believe the criminal justice system is biased against blacks, just 25 percent of whites did, signifying the greatest chasm between whites’ and blacks’ perceptions of bias since Gallup began polling in the early 1990s. That gap also translated into views about the verdict. Eighty-five percent of blacks viewed the verdict acquitting Zimmerman for murder as wrong, while 54 percent of whites said the verdict was correct.
These disparate perceptions of racism in the criminal justice system can play as much of a role in the racial tensions exposed by the shooting of Michael Brown as disproportion itself, according to a new report by the Sentencing Project. It means that whites are more likely to attribute disparate outcomes such as long sentences or high arrest rates solely to individuals’ own mistakes rather than to racism in the system. And it may be an explanation for why whites are more supportive of punitive policies like Three Strikes laws and the death penalty, even though blacks are significantly more likely to be the victims of crimes:
With momentum for reform after the shooting of Michael Brown, the Sentencing Project’s report compiles and interprets two decades of data on racial perceptions of the criminal justice system that “have bolstered harsh and biased criminal justice policies.” In addition to noting disparate perceptions of justice between blacks ans whites, the report also highlights significant data that whites over-estimate the amount, severity, and nature of crimes committed by minorities. While some minority groups do make up a disproportionate percentage of both crime victims and arrestees, whites tend to think African Americans have committed a proportion of crime 20–30 percent higher than reflected in crime statistics. And a number of studies have exhibited the implicit bias that breeds assumptions African Americans are more likely to be dangerous, and are more likely to have a gun. “Even after accounting for differing crime rates and other measures of disorder, researchers have found that the ‘percentage [of] young black men is one of the best predictors of the perceived severity of neighborhood crime’,” the report explains.
“Together, these studies reveal that even white Americans who denounce racism still hold unconscious and unintentional racial biases, associating people of color with criminality,” the report explains. “By demonstrating that race distorts perceptions of risk, this research sheds light on the circumstances leading to the deaths of unarmed men and women including Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown.”