Study Settles It: Shocking Black & Latino Imprisonment Rates the Result of Racist, Punitive Impulse
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Right-wing media figures, of course, have become experts at exploiting these ideas. As the authors write, "Conservative political pundits such as Ann Coulter can blame the 1980s crime wave and a 'moral decline' on permissive liberal judges who coddle 'superpredators' while undermining family values. Our data suggest that this conservative argument is likely to be warmly embraced by those who express racial animus." Elswhere, the authors note that figures like Coulter have helped develop the stereotype of those for whom "the picture in their head illuminates a young, angry, black, inner-city male who offends with little remorse."
Any new study probing racist attitudes and their effects is timely at a moment that has unleashed a virulent strain of right-wing hatred toward President Barack Obama and his administration -- on the issue of healthcare, of all things -- but it's important to keep in mind that the data used by the authors could be considered quite dated when it comes to magnitude of social changes that have happened since it was first gathered. "Since 2000 when the data we analyzed were collected," Unnever and Cullen note, "the United States has experienced the 9/11 attack, two wars, the determination of a presidential election by the Supreme Court, the election of the first African American president, and the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression."
"It is not clear that these events have transformed the sources of punitiveness," Unnever and Cullen write, "but such a possibility exists and should be evaluated."
For those who study up close -- or who have experienced from the inside -- the excesses of U.S. prison system, the conclusions of this study will come as no surprise. But the authors' conclusion that criminal justice experts ought to "place race and racism at the center of their explanation for why the United States imprisons so many of its citizens" is crucially important, particularly at a moment when the Obama administration itself is increasing federal funding for policies that embrace some of the same policies that led to the current prison crisis.
"[W]hen politicians justify their support for getting tough on criminals by citing public-opinion polls," Unnever and Cullen warn, "they are either explicitly or implicitly basing their policy decisions on racialized punitive attitudes. In short, the data show that when it comes to public opinion about crime and its control, race and racism matter."