Human Rights

Study Settles It: Shocking Black & Latino Imprisonment Rates the Result of Racist, Punitive Impulse

How racist attitudes barely hide beneath the surface of 'tough on crime' policies.

For decades, journalists, scholars and activists seeking to understand the soaring number of people locked up in U.S. prisons over the past 40 years have uncovered -- or just looked clearly enough to see -- overwhelming evidence of systemic racism at every level of the criminal justice system. Yet, there has been a wide reluctance to name racism as one of the primary factors fueling the prison boom; as sentences have gotten longer and parole granted less often, even the starkest racial statistics -- like the fact that African Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population -- have often been treated as an unfortunate byproduct of the war on drugs.

Now, two criminologists have concluded, in a new study investigating public attitudes behind harsh sentencing, that the warehousing of African Americans and other minorities is no accident. Rather, "racial resentments are inextricably entwined in public punitiveness." In other words, racism and the rise of "tough on crime" policies go hand in hand.

James Unnever of the University of South Florida-Sarasota and Francis Cullen of the University of Cincinnati acknowledge the "lengthy roster" of previous studies on race and the U.S. prison system; yet theirs manages to contribute something crucial to the current debate: "… [G]iven the large body of research that documents a substantive association between punitiveness and racial animus," they write, "it is somewhat disconcerting that theories of the mass-incarceration movement do not place race and racism at the center of their explanation for why the United States imprisons so many of its citizens."

This conclusion echoes the work of civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, who, in the introduction to her new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, admits that even she was once skeptical of how central racism was to the rise of the modern American prison system. "Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

Alexander argues that the U.S. prison system has so sweepingly and consistently targeted African American men that it has effectively created a new racial caste system. That most Americans would deny such a caste system exists speaks to how insidious it is. "Like an optical illusion," she writes, "one in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identified -- the new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality."

Unnever and Cullen's study makes it that much easier to see what Alexander describes.

Racial Resentments

To conduct their study, Unnever and Cullen used the results of the 2000 National Election Survey, which featured interviews with 1,620 Americans who shared their views on a range of social issues. To assess the "punitive attitudes" of participants, the authors considered their answers to questions weighing the social roots of crime versus the need to punish those who commit crime. For example: "Do you think that the best way to reduce crime is to address the social problems that cause crime like bad schools, poverty, and joblessness or to make sure criminals are caught, convicted, and punished, or that we should do something in between, or haven't you thought much about this?"

The authors also measured respondents' support for the harshest sentence of all: capital punishment. When asked if they favored or opposed the death penalty for convicted murderers, 55 percent of respondents "strongly favored the death penalty." Eighteen percent "did not strongly support it." The rest did not know.

These were the authors' "dependent variables" in assessing three popular theories on the "social sources of punitiveness": "Escalating Crime-Distrust" (the idea that crime is on the rise and the courts are doing nothing to stop it); "Moral Decline" (the belief that our society is being threatened and corroded by non-traditional notions of family and "newer lifestyles"); and the third: "Racial Animus" (otherwise known as racism).

Racial animus was measured using two scales: "Racial Resentment" and "Racial Stereotype." The former looked at the responses to such statements as:

Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.

It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

"Responses to these questions," the authors write, "included 'agree strongly,' 'agree somewhat,' 'neither agree nor disagree,' 'disagree somewhat,' or 'disagree strongly.'"

"Racial Stereotype," meanwhile, asked people to "rate blacks on a scale of 1 to 7" on such characteristics as intelligence, trustworthiness and work ethic.

The conclusion: "The Racial Resentment scale significantly predicted greater support for a more punitive approach toward crime and for capital punishment."

"Our data also show that one of the most salient and consistent predictors of American punitiveness is racial animus," the authors conclude. "Importantly, this finding held even when controlling for two competing theoretical models … When added to the large body of evidence on the effects of racial animus … this finding suggests that a prominent reason for the American public's punitiveness -- including the embrace of mass imprisonment and the death penalty -- is the belief that those disproportionately subject to these harsh sanctions are people they do not like: African American offenders."

'Race and Racism Matter'

There is no shortage of Americans who believe that the courts routinely let hardened criminals go free and that the decline of the nuclear family is responsible for the worst societal ills; Unnever and Cullen acknowledge that such beliefs, which define the other two measures of "punitiveness," operate in tandem with racist attitudes in attracting public support for "tough on crime" policies.

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."

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Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.