White Americans are more punitive than people of color. Whites misjudge how much crime African Americans and Latinos actually commit. Whites who more strongly associate crime with racial minorities are more supportive of punitive policies. Media crime coverage fuels racial perceptions of crime.
These are conclusions of a September 2014 report from the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. The report synthesizes 20 years' worth of data on white perceptions of race and crime and gives support to what we understand on an emotional level. For instance, we know that nothing bad will ever befall the throng of handgun-toting middle-aged white men at a tea-party rally. Even white men who perform mass shootings are usually taken quietly into custody.
And we suspect that even last year's legislative push for prison sentencing reforms was as much about keeping white kids busted for popping pills out of Mississippi's prisons as about keeping the state's costs in check.
Sentencing Project researchers address this in their report: "White Americans, who constitute a majority of policymakers, criminal-justice practitioners, the media and the general public, overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color and the proportion of racial minorities who commit crime. Even individuals who denounce racism often harbor unconscious and unintentional racial biases."
But people of color often contribute. Imagine the frightened elder leering at the group of teenagers on the corner they suspect of being up to no good. What police sergeant or city council person wouldn't dispatch a squad car as quickly as possible to allay a senior citizen's concerns?
People of color are subject to the same socialization as whites and, as scholars such as Jackson State University political scientist Byron D'Andra Orey note, have internalized many of the same racial perceptions of themselves.
For this, the Sentencing Project offers some recommendations: "The media, policymakers, and criminal justice practitioners can implement several proven interventions to sever associations of crime with race, and temper their impact. News producers can monitor and correct for disparities in crime reporting. Policymakers can curb excessive incarceration and develop policies to reduce disparities in sentencing and crime rates."
We will continue our commitment to reporting on issues that touch race as deeply and thoroughly and with as much context as possible. And we will continue to insist that other media outlets and policymakers work to eliminate these disparities as well. We urge you to join us on this vital mission.
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