Tag Archives: crime/law

Racial Bias and Media Coverage of Violent Crime

Studies of Americans’ unconscious beliefs shows that most people — white and black — think black people are dangerous and both average folks and police are quicker to shoot black than white people.

Where does the cognitive belief that black people are dangerous come from?

Partly, it comes from the media. A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted black alleged perpetrators.

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Meanwhile, when people of color are arrested, they are more likely to be portrayed in ways that make them seem threatening than white people. This happened this week:

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See also, portrayals of Mark Duggan and Mike Brown.

Each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire. The same for people of other races. The more often a link is triggered, the stronger it becomes. Disproportionate reporting like the kind captured in this study make the neural links in our brain — it’s actual physical structure — reflect the racism inherent in the reporting itself.

These associations, unfortunately, are pre-conscious. Those neurons fire faster than we can suppress them with our conscious mind. So, even if we believe in our heart-of-hearts that these connections are unfair or untrue, our unconscious is busy making the associations anyway. Biased reporting, in other words, changes the minds of viewers, literally.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What Accounts for the U.S. Cop Kill Rate? A Case for Guns

This story from Daily Kos has been quickly circling through the left portion of the Internet. The headline reads:

American police killed more people in March (111) than the entire U.K. police have killed since 1900.

Let’s assume that the numbers are accurate.*

The author, Shaun King, writes:

Don’t bother adjusting for population differences, or poverty, or mental illness, or anything else. The sheer fact that American police kill TWICE as many people per month as police have killed in the modern history of the United Kingdom is sick, preposterous, and alarming.

But let’s bother adjusting, anyway.

The U.S. has a much larger population, and it has more police officers:2

…but even adjusting for that, the U.S. killings by cops dwarf the U.K. figure.**12

Adjusting for the number of cops, U.S. cops killed 8 times as many people in a single year as U.K. cops did in 115 years. But before we conclude that U.S. law enforcement is “sick and preposterous” and dominated by homicidal racists, we might look at the other side – the number of cops who get killed. The entire U.K. police force since 1900 has had 249 deaths in the line of duty. The U.S. tally eclipses that in a couple of years.14

In this century, 25 U.K. officers died in the line of duty. The figure for the U.S., 2445, is nearly one hundred times that. Adjusting for numbers of officers, U.S. deaths are still ten times higher.

My guess is that what accounts for much of the U.K./U.S. difference is guns. Most British cops don’t carry guns. Last August, I posted a video of a berserk man wildly swinging a machete in a London street (here – it’s gotten over 25,000 page views ). The police come, armed only with protective shields and truncheons. Eventually, they are able to subdue the man. In the U.S., it’s almost certain that the police would have shot the man, and it would have been completely justifiable. More cops with guns, more cops killing people.

But more civilians with guns, more cops getting killed. Since 2000, six U.K. cops have died from gunshots; in the U.S., 788.  We have 11 times as many cops, but 130 times as many killed by guns. (The other two leading causes of police deaths are heart attacks and car accidents.)777

(I did not include the yearly data for the UK since it would not have been visible on the graph. In most years, total cop deaths there ranged between 0 and 2.)

Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of gun manufacturers and their minions in legislatures and in the NRA and elsewhere, U.S. cops work in a gun-rich environment. They feel, probably correctly, that they need to carry guns. If that man in London had been wielding an AR-15 (easily available in many states in the U.S. – in the U.K., not so much, not at all in fact), the cops could not have responded as they did. They would have needed guns. There would probably have been some dead civilians, perhaps some dead cops, and almost certainly, a dead berserker.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

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* We don’t have a good source of data on how many people the police kill. An unofficial source since 2013 is KilledByPolice.net.

** The denominator for the U.K. – the number of police officers over the last 115 years  – is my own very rough estimate.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Only 6% of College Presidents Think that Sexual Crime is Prevalent on Their Campus

The White House has made preventing sexual assaults on college campuses a priority, The Hunting Ground documents extensive institutional denial and malfeasance, the Department of Justice finds that one in five college women are assaulted, research shows that 1 in 25 college men is a serial rapist, and students at almost 100 campuses have filed federal complaints against their schools.

Yet, according to a study of 647 college presidents, only a third (32%) believe that sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses in general and only a tiny minority (6%) think it’s prevalent on their own campus.

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This is stunning. Never before in history has the problem of sexual assault on campus been better documented. The media has never covered the issue so thoroughly, frequently, and sympathetically. We are in a moment of national reflection. Under these circumstances, a quarter of college presidents claim that sexual assault isn’t prevalent anywhere and 78% deny that it’s prevalent on their own campus.

These were confidential surveys, so impression management can’t explain these numbers. Those 94% of college presidents who don’t think that sexual crimes are prevalent at their schools either think the numbers are wrong, think their own institutions are exceptions, or think that one in five isn’t fairly described as “prevalent.” Or maybe some combination of the above.

No wonder faculty are frustrated and students around the country have felt forced to turn to the federal government for help. It’s clear. College presidents are either recklessly ignorant or willfully in denial — that, or they simply don’t believe women or don’t care about them.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Race, Criminal Background, and Employment

Flashback Friday.

Having a criminal record negatively affects the likelihood of being considered for a job. Devah Pager conducted a matched-pair experiment in which she had male testers apply for the same entry-level jobs advertised in Milwaukee newspapers. She gave the assistants fake credentials that make them equivalent in terms of education, job experience, and so on. Half were Black and half White.

One tester from each pair was instructed to indicate that they had a past non-violent drug possession offense. Pager then collected data on how many of the applicants were called back for an interview after submitting their fake applications.

The results indicate that getting a job with a criminal record is difficult. Having even a non-violent drug offense had a significant impact on rates of callbacks:

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What was surprising was that race actually turned out to be more significant than a criminal background. Notice that employers were more likely to call Whites with a criminal record (17% were offered an interview) than Blacks without a criminal record (14%). And while having a criminal background hurt all applicants’ chances of getting an interview, African Americans with a non-violent offense faced particularly dismal employment prospects. Imagine if the fake criminal offense had been for a property or violent crime?

In addition, according to Pager, employers seemed to expect that Black applicants might have a criminal record:

When people think of Black men they think of a criminal. It affects the way Black men are treated in the labor market. In fact, Black testers in our study were likely to be asked up front if they have a criminal record, while whites were rarely asked…

African American men face a double barrier:  higher rates of incarceration and racial discrimination.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug? Findings Lean from Mixed to No

All politicians lie, said I.F. Stone. But they don’t all lie as blatantly as Chris Christie did last week in repeating his vow not to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

Every bit of objective data we have tells us that it’s a gateway drug to other drugs.

That statement simply is not true. The evidence on marijuana as a gateway drug is at best mixed, as the governor or any journalist interested in fact checking his speech could have discovered by looking up “gateway” on Wikipedia.

If the governor meant that smoking marijuana in and of itself created a craving for stronger drugs, he’s just plain wrong. Mark Kleiman, a policy analyst who knows a lot about drugs, says bluntly:

The strong gateway model, which is that somehow marijuana causes fundamental changes in the brain and therefore people inevitably go on from marijuana to cocaine or heroin, is false, as shown by the fact that most people who smoke marijuana don’t. That’s easy. But of course nobody really believes the strong version.

Nobody? Prof. Kleiman, meet Gov. Christie

Or maybe Christie meant a softer version – that the kid who starts smoking weed gets used to doing illegal things, and he makes connections with the kinds of people who use stronger drugs. He gets drawn into their world. It’s not the weed itself that leads to cocaine or heroin, it’s the social world.

That social gateway version, though, offers support for legalization.  Legalization takes weed out of the drug underworld. If you want some weed, you no longer have to consort with criminals and serious druggies.

There are several other reasons to doubt the gateway idea. Much of the evidence comes from studies of individuals. But now, thanks to medical legalization, we also have state-level data, and the results are the same. Legalizing medical marijuana did not lead to an increase in the use of harder drugs, especially among kids. Just the opposite.


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First, note the small percents. Perhaps 1.6% of adults used cocaine in the pre-medical-pot years. That percent fell slightly post-legalization. Of course, those older people had long since passed through the gateway, so we wouldn’t expect legalization to make much difference for them. But for younger people, cocaine use was cut in half. Instead of an open gateway with traffic flowing rapidly from marijuana through to the world of hard drugs, it was more like, oh, I don’t know, maybe a bridge with several of its lanes closed clogging traffic.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Children of the Prison Boom

The United States imprisons more people than any other country. This is true whether you measure by percentage of the population or by sheer, raw numbers. If the phrase mass incarceration applies anywhere, it applies in the good ol’ U. S. of A.

It wasn’t always this way. Rates of incarceration began rising as a result of President Reagan’s “war on drugs” in the ’80s (marijuana, for example), whereby the number of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes began climbing at an alarming rate. Today, about one-in-31 adults are in prison. his is a human rights crisis for the people that are incarcerated, but its impact also echoes through the job sector, communities, families, and the hearts of children. One-in-28 school-age children — 2.7 million — have a parent in prison.

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In a new book, Children of the Prison Boom, sociologists Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield describe the impact of parental imprisonment on children: an increase in poverty, homelessness, depression, anxiety, learning disorders, behavioral problems, and interpersonal aggression. Some argue that taking parents who have committed a crime out of the family might be good for children, but the data is in. It’s not.

Parental incarceration is now included in research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and it’s particular contours include shame and stigma alongside the trauma. It has become such a large problem that Sesame Street is incorporating in their Little Children, Big Challenges series and has a webpage devoted to the issue. Try not to cry as a cast member sings “you’re not alone” and children talk about what it feels like to have a parent in prison:

Wildeman and Wakefield, alongside another sociologist who researches the issue, Kristin Turney, are interviewed for a story about the problem at The Nation. They argue that even if we start to remedy mass incarceration — something we’re not doing — we will still have to deal with the consequences. They are, Wildeman and Wakefield say, “a lost generation now coming of age.”

The subtitle of their book, Mass Incarceration and the Future of Inequality, points to how that lost generation might exacerbate the already deep race and class differences in America. At The Nation, Katy Reckdahl writes:

One in four black children born in 1990 saw their father head off to prison before they turned 14… For white children of the same age, the risk is one in thirty. For black children whose fathers didn’t finish high school, the odds are even greater: more than 50 percent have dads who were locked up by the time they turned 14…

Even well-educated black families are disproportionately affected by the incarceration boom. Wakefield and Wildeman found that black children with college-educated fathers are twice as likely to see them incarcerated as the children of white high-school dropouts.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow hung like a weight around the shoulders of the parents of black and brown children. After Jim Crow, the GI Bill and residential redlining strangled their chances to build wealth that they could pass down. The mass incarceration boom is just another in a long history of state policies that target black and brown people — and their children — severely inhibiting their life chances.

Hat tip Citings and Sightings. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Tomato Tariff: The Politics of Fruits and Vegetables

If it were to happen that the decision as to whether the tomato was a fruit or vegetable made it to the highest court of the land — if such a strange thing were to happen — certainly the botanist’s opinion would weigh heaviest. Right?

Nope.

In fact, this decision did make it all the way to the Supreme Court. It happened in 1893. The case was brought by a tomato importing family by the last name of Nix. At the time, the law required that taxes be collected on vegetables that were imported, but not fruit.

The lawyers for the Nix family argued that the tomato is a fruit and, therefore, exempt from taxation. They were, of course, correct. Botanists define fruit according to whether it plays a reproductive role. So, any plant product with one or more seeds is a fruit, whereas vegetables don’t have seeds. Fruits are ovaries, for lack of a better term. All other plant products — stems, roots, leaves, and some seeds — are vegetables.

But the Supreme Court said, essentially, “We don’t care” and gave their gavel a good pound. Here’s some of the text of their unanimous opinion:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine… But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

The judges were referring to the common understanding, which has more to do with how we use the plant products than how plants use them. Your typical chef roughly divides plant products according to whether they’re sweet or savory. Fruits are sweet. Vegetables are savory and used for main courses and sides. It’s all about whether you eat them for dinner or dessert. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld.

Culinary vs. botanical categorization (source):

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Since the culinary scheme dominates our colloquial understanding, we mis-classify lots of other things, too. Zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants, string beans, cucumbers, avocado, and okra — all fruit. Rhubarb is a vegetable. No seeds. Pineapples are fruits. “Ah ha!” you say, “I’ve never noticed a pineapple having seeds!” That’s because commercial growers sell us seedless pineapples. Who knew. Berries are fruit, but strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are not actually berries. Isn’t this fun?

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, in Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, wrote:

If reality means anything, it is that which “resists” the pressure of a force. … That which cannot be changed at will is what counts as real.

We often think of cultural facts as somehow less real than biological ones. For the Nix family, though, biology mattered naught. They still had to pay the damn tax on their tomatoes. Culture is real, folks. Social construction is not just something we do to reality; for all intents and purposes, it is reality.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Family in Recession: Births & Divorces Down, Violence Up

I wrote this for The Conversation. Read the original here.

Observers may be quick to declare social trends “good” or “bad” for families, but such conclusions are rarely justified. What’s good for one family – or group of families – may be bad for another. And within families, interests do not always align. Divorce is “bad” for a family in the sense of breaking it apart, but it may be beneficial, or even essential, for one or both partners or their children.

This kind of ambiguity makes it difficult to assess what kind of impact the recent recession and its aftermath had on families. But for researchers, at least, it offers a lot of job security – so many questions, so much going on. In any case, here’s where we stand so far.

The effect of the Great Recession on family trends in the United States has been dramatic with regard to birth rates and divorce, and has been strongly suggestive of family violence, but less clear for marriage and cohabitation.

Marriage rates declined, and cohabitation rates increased, but these trends were already underway, and the recession didn’t alter them much. When trends don’t change direction it’s difficult to identify an effect of a shock this broad. However, with both birth rates and divorce, clear patterns emerged.

Birth rates: a sharp drop

The most dramatic impact was on birth rates, which dropped precipitously, especially for young women, as a result of the economic crisis. How do we know? First, the timing of the fertility decline is very suggestive. After increasing steadily from the beginning of 2002 until late 2007, birth rates dropped sharply. (The decline has since slowed for some groups after 2010, but the U.S. still saw record-low birth rates for teenagers and women ages 20-24 as late as 2012.)

Second, the decline in fertility was steeper in states with greater increases in unemployment. Although we don’t have the data to determine which couple did or did not have a child in response to economic changes, this pattern supports the idea that financial concerns convinced some people to not have a child.

That interpretation is supported by the third trend: the fertility drop was more pronounced among younger women – and there was no drop at all among women over 40. That may mean the fertility decline represents births postponed by families that intend to have children later – an option older women may not have – which fits previous research on economic shocks.

It seems likely that people who are on the fence about having a baby can be swayed by perceived financial hardship or uncertainty. From research on 27 European countries, we know that people with troubled family financial situations are more likely to say they are unsure whether they will meet their stated childbearing goals – that is, economic uncertainty doesn’t change their familial aims but may increase uncertainty in whether they will be met.

However, some births delayed inevitably become births foregone. Based on the effect of unemployment on birth rates in earlier periods, it appears a substantial number of young women who postponed births will end up never having children. By one estimate, women who were in their early 20s during the Great Recession are projected to have some 400,000 fewer lifetime births and an additional 1.5% of them will never have a birth.

Divorce rates: a counter-intuitive reaction

In the case of divorce, the pattern is counter-intuitive. Although economic hardship and insecurity adds stress to relationships and increases the risk of divorce, the overall divorce rate usually drops when unemployment rates rise.

Researchers believe that, like births, people postpone divorces during economic crises because of the costs of divorcing – not just legal fees, but also housing transitions (which were especially difficult in the Great Recession) and employment disruptions.

My own research found that there was a sharp drop in the divorce rate in 2009 that can reasonably be attributed to the recession. But, as we suspect will be the case with births, there appears to have been a divorce-rate rebound in the years that followed.

Domestic violence: a spike along with joblessness

Family violence has become much less common since the 1990s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but they certainly include the overall drop in violent crime, improved response from social service and non-governmental organizations, and improvements in women’s relative economic status. However, when the recession hit there was a spike in intimate-partner violence, coinciding with the sharp rise in men’s unemployment rates (I show the trends here).

As with the other trends, it’s hard to make a case based on timing alone, but the evidence is fairly strong that the economic shock increased family stress and violence. For example, one study showed that mothers were more likely to report spanking their children in the months when consumer confidence fell. Another study found a jump in abusive head trauma cases during the recession in several regions. And there have been many anecdotal and journalist accounts of increases in family violence, emerging as early as 2009. Are these direct results of the economic stress or mere correlation? It’s hard to say for sure.

The ultimate impact of these trends on American families will likely take years to emerge. The recession may have affected the pattern of marriage in ways we don’t yet understand – how couples selected each other, who got married and who didn’t – and may create measurable group of marriages that are marked for future effects as yet unforeseen. Like the young adults who entered the labor market during the period of high unemployment and whose career trajectories will be forever altered unfavorably, how these families bear the scars cannot be predicted. Time will tell.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.