How Much Do Whites Care About Racial Disparities?

New research suggests the answer is “not much”:

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.

Carla Murphy unpacks the study:

A white female researcher went to a train station near San Francisco and asked 62 white voters to watch a video of mug shots of male inmates – before asking them to sign a petition easing California’s three-strikes law. Some watched a video where only 25 percent of inmates were black. Others, where 45 percent of inmates were black. When it came time for signing, most white voters viewing the video with fewer black inmates signed the petition. Those viewing the video with a higher percentage of black inmates, however, refused to sign, “regardless of how harsh participants thought the law was.” … Researchers conducted a separate “real-life” experiment with white New Yorkers around stop-and-frisk. The results were similar to San Francisco’s.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown raises an eyebrow:

“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,” said [researcher Rebecca] 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.”

A good reminder to heed the work of British sociologist Stuart Hall and similar communication scholars: Never assume your audience will take away what you intend for them to take away. Between the producing (“encoding” in Hall-speak) and the receiving (“decoding”) of a message, there’s a lot of space for conscious or unconscious fears and prejudices to meander in.

Jamelle Bouie sighs:

It’s disheartening. But, if I can indulge my cynicism for a moment, it’s also not too surprising. From previous research, we know that – among white Americans – there’s a strong cognitive connection between “blackness” and criminality. “The mere presence of a black man,” note [researcher Jennifeer] Eberhardt and other researchers in a 2004 paper, “can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal.”

Indeed, they continue, simply thinking about black Americans can lead people to see ambiguous actions as aggressive and to see harmless objects as weapons. When Michael Dunn saw 17-year-old Jordan Davis and his friends, he perceived a threat, imagined a gun, and opened fire, killing Davis. “I was the one who was victimized,” said Dunn in a phone call to his fiancée before his trial. It’s ludicrous, but it’s not dishonest. Like many other Americans, Dunn sees black people – and black men in particular – as a criminal threat.