Prejudice and Punishment
Two UMaine sociologists study the link between racial perceptions
and attitudes toward criminal justice
In this country, public opinion has had a significant influence on
criminal justice policy. But if public opinion rests in part on
racial prejudice, Barkan argues, it's anti-democratic. In a
democracy, racial prejudice should not have any influence on laws
and government policy. If popular support for the death penalty
derives from racial prejudice, then it should not be a factor in
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In a democracy, public policy is
supposed to reflect public opinion or, at the very least, to take it
into account. But what if public opinion is based on attitudes that run
counter to the notion that all people are created equal? What if, on
some issues, public opinion is shaped by racial prejudice?
For nearly 20 years, two University of Maine sociologists have studied
the influence of racial prejudice on white people's attitudes toward
crime and punishment. Their most recent study, the fourth in their
series on the role of prejudice in attitudes toward criminal justice,
shows that racial prejudice is often a factor in the support that whites
express for increased spending on law enforcement.
"Individuals may have all sorts of reasons for wanting more money spent
to fight crime," note UMaine professors of sociology Steven Barkan and
Steven Cohn in releasing their latest research findings. "Yet our study
indicates that racially tinged views of African-American violence are an
important component of white Americans' support for greater expenditures
on crime control. The more that whites perceive that African-Americans
are prone to violence, the more likely they are to want more money spent
to reduce crime."
Barkan and Cohn also have looked at the role of prejudice in whites'
support for the use of force in law enforcement, for harsher punishment
of criminals and for the death penalty. In all four studies, they found
that prejudice against African-Americans is an important reason for
holding punitive attitudes. In the face of such a growing body of
evidence, the UMaine researchers warn that "politicians and other
policymakers must be careful not to be unduly swayed by public opinion
on crime, as such opinion exists in part because of the racial fears and
prejudices of white Americans."
"The statistics we use don't allow us to assess how much of an impact
racial prejudice has, but we know that it does have some impact," Barkan
says. "I believe that most people who favor harsher sanctions for
criminals are not consciously prejudiced. But there is extensive
psychological evidence that racial prejudice often operates
The most recent findings by Barkan and Cohn come at a time when
practices such as racial profiling and the death penalty have come under
increased nationwide scrutiny. For instance, in 1999, the Clinton
administration convened a conference on strengthening police-community
relationships, which looked at racial profiling as one of the major
causes of distrust. In 2000, the Justice Department released The Federal
Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000), which revealed
that African-Americans and Hispanics make up more than 80 percent of
those on federal death row. The controversial report fueled concerns by
civil rights groups about racial and geographic disparity in capital
punishment cases, but prompted U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to
testify before a House Judiciary Committee that the study revealed no
racial bias in the U.S. death penalty.
Looking more deeply at the factors that color people's attitudes toward
crime policy has been the focus of research by sociologists like Barkan
and Cohn. For instance, studies by sociologists over the past
half-century have shown that, with the notable exception of the death
penalty, whites and blacks generally agree on the severity of punishment
for various types of crime. In the 1980s, Barkan and Cohn began
wondering why this was so, and whether whites and blacks might have
different even conflicting reasons for holding the same opinions.
"Our original hypothesis was that white people would hold punitive
attitudes on punishment because they perceived members of racial
minorities as being disproportionately criminal, and black people would
hold punitive attitudes because they are the ones who are most
victimized by crime," Cohn says.
A close analysis of data from the National Opinion Research Center's
1987 General Social Survey (GSS) told them they were on the right track.
By comparing responses from whites and blacks to a number of different
survey questions and by controlling for the variables of age, gender
and education they found that blacks tend to favor harsh penalties for
criminals because of their fear of crime, while white attitudes toward
punishment are based partly on racial prejudice.
"When people agree on an issue for different reasons, we call that a
false consensus," Barkan says. "A good example of this is the opposition
to pornography, both by religious conservatives and by some feminists."
In their second study on the subject of race, prejudice and criminal
justice, the two UMaine sociologists looked at the reasons why a large
majority of white people support the death penalty. Opinion surveys
consistently show far greater support for capital punishment among
whites than among blacks.
Barkan and Cohn analyzed data from the National Opinion Research
Center's 1990 GSS, which included a section on racial attitudes and
perceptions. Of particular interest were white people's responses to
questions about the degree to which they thought blacks were "lazy,
unintelligent, desirous of living off welfare and unpatriotic."
Respondents also were asked how they would feel about having black
neighbors and about a close relative marrying a black person.
The researchers then correlated responses to these questions with
expressions of support for the death penalty. The results, they say,
provided the first clear evidence that white support for capital
punishment is associated with "antipathy to blacks and with racial
Barkan and Cohn followed this study with a look at white attitudes
toward the use of force by police. Again using data from the 1990 GSS,
they examined the factors that cause people to support either
"reasonable force" or "excessive force." They found that racial
prejudice as indicated by stereotypical attitudes and antipathy toward
blacks is associated with white approval of excessive force, but not
of reasonable force.
In their latest study, the UMaine sociologists analyzed data from the
2000 GSS to gauge the effect of prejudice on whites' support for
spending more money to fight crime. They found that whites are more
likely to support such spending if they perceive blacks as more inclined
to violence, but not if they perceive whites as more violence prone.
This finding, they wrote, is a stark indication that "racially tinged
views of African-American violence are an important component of white
Americans' support for greater expenditures on crime control."
In each of their four studies, Barkan and Cohn used different variables
and somewhat different measures of prejudice to examine different
questions, and they worked with data from three different national
opinion surveys. Yet their central findings have remained remarkably
consistent. All four studies show a strong link between punitive
attitudes and racial prejudice.
"We always suspected that prejudice might influence attitudes in a
number of different areas of criminal justice," Cohn says, "and that is
just what we have found."
The findings are more than simply troubling, say the researchers. They
raise important questions about the proper role of public opinion in the
criminal justice arena.
"We have now done four different studies, and each time we have found
that racial prejudice has an impact, even when we control for other
factors that are associated with support for higher levels of
punitiveness," Barkan says. "We believe we have found a relationship
that is significant, not just statistically, but for the real world of
One of the hallmarks of democracy is that "public opinion should count
for something, that leaders should take it into account," Barkan says.
"We know that public opinion has had a significant influence on criminal
justice policy in this country over the years. But if public opinion
rests in part on racial prejudice, then that's anti-democratic. In a
democracy, racial prejudice should not have any influence on laws and
Barkan cites Supreme Court decisions regarding capital punishment as
examples of the influence public opinion can have on the laws of the
"The court has said that people who are mentally retarded can no longer
be executed, presumably because a public consensus has developed against
that. However, the justices have ruled that, in general, the death
penalty doesn't violate the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual
punishment because, in effect, so many people still support it.
"But to the extent that popular support for the death penalty derives
from racial prejudice, then it should not be a factor in judicial
decisions," Barkan contends.
Since Barkan and Cohn began studying the impact of prejudice on public
policy, the art and science of public opinion polling has come to play
an immensely powerful role in politics. Candidates and lawmakers at all
levels of government now rely heavily on poll results when deciding what
positions to take and what policies to champion. This is part of what
Cohn calls "the glorification of public opinion."
"When a politician says the people believe' this or that, that tends to
lend a certain legitimacy to whatever stance is being taken," according
While it is beneficial for politicians to take public opinion into
consideration, Cohn says it can be dangerous to glorify public opinion
by following it unquestioningly.
"As our research has found, public opinion in the area of criminal
justice rests to some extent on a non-glorious foundation."
by Nick Houtman
Michele Alexander, UMaine associate professor of social psychology, was
killed Dec. 16 in an automobile accident near her home. She was 37.
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.