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March / April 2004

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Prejudice and Punishment


Prejudice and Punishment
Two UMaine sociologists study the link between racial perceptions and attitudes toward criminal justice


Roots of Prejudice
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 judicial decisions.

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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 unconsciously."

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 stereotyping."

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 public policy."

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 government policy."

Barkan cites Supreme Court decisions regarding capital punishment as examples of the influence public opinion can have on the laws of the land.

"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 to Cohn.

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
March-April, 2004

Editor's note: Michele Alexander, UMaine associate professor of social psychology, was killed Dec. 16 in an automobile accident near her home. She was 37.

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