Tag Archives: crime/law

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspire Whites to be “Tough on Crime”

“Advocates might want to try different language (or a different approach) in their campaign to reform the criminal justice system,” writes Jamelle Bouie for Slate. He drew his conclusion after summarizing a new pair of studies, by psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt, looking at the relationship between being “tough on crime” and the association of criminality with blackness.

In the first study, 62 White men and women were interrupted as they got off a commuter train and invited to chat about the three strikes law in California. Before being presented with an anti-three strikes petition, they were shown a video that flashed 80 mugshots. In one condition, 25% of the photos were of black people and, in another, 45% of the photos were.

Among the subjects in the first “less black” condition, more than half signed the petition to make the law less strict, but only 28% in the “more black” condition signed it.

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A second study in New York City about the stop-and-frisk policy had a similar finding:

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The results suggest that white Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black. The second study suggested that this was mediated by fear; the idea of black criminals inspires higher anxiety than that of white criminals, pressing white people to want stronger law enforcement.

So, as Bouie concluded, when prison reformers and anti-racists point out the incredible and disproportionate harm these policies do to black Americans, it may have the opposite of its intended effect. Hetey and Eberhardt conclude:

Many legal advocates and social activists assume that bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities will motivate people to fight inequality. Our results call this assumption into question. We demonstrated that exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.

“Institutional disparities,” they add, “can be self-perpetuating.” Our history of unfairly targeting and punishing black men more than others now convinces white Americans that we must continue to do so.

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.

Saturday Stat: The Average Prisoner is Visited Only Twice

Prisoners who can maintain ties to people on the outside tend to do better — both while they’re incarcerated and after they’re released. A new Crime and Delinquency article by Joshua Cochran, Daniel Mears, and William Bales, however, shows relatively low rates of visitation.

The study was based on a cohort of prisoners admitted into and released from Florida prisons from November 2000 to April 2002. On average, inmates only received 2.1 visits over the course of their entire incarceration period. Who got visitors? As the figure below shows, prisoners who are younger, white or Latino, and had been incarcerated less frequently tend to have more visits. Community factors also shaped visitation patterns: prisoners who come from high incarceration areas or communities with greater charitable activity also received more visits.  

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There are some pretty big barriers to improving visitation rates, including: (1) distance (most inmates are housed more than 100 miles from home); (2) lack of transportation; (3) costs associated with missed work; and, (4) child care. While these are difficult obstacles to overcome, the authors conclude that corrections systems can take steps to reduce these barriers, such as housing inmates closer to their homes, making facilities and visiting hours more child-friendly, and reaching out to prisoners’ families regarding the importance of visitation, both before and during incarceration.

Cross-posted at Public Criminology.

Chris Uggen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of  Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, with Jeff Manza. You can follow him at his blog and on twitter.

The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black

American divisions over the state of our country’s race relations were brought to the forefront in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson, MO police officer named Darren Wilson. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites or Hispanics to say that the killing was part of a broader pattern (source).  And blacks are twice as likely as whites to say that race played an important role in Wilson’s decision to shoot (source).

At The Atlantic, Robert Jones argues that these disparate opinions may be caused, in part, by the different life experiences of the typical white and black American. He shows data, from the American Values Survey, indicating that black people are much more likely than whites to report living in communities rife with problems, from a lack of jobs and inadequate school funding to crime and racial tension.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black.  Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

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In contrast, the social network of the average black American is 65% black and, among Hispanic Americans, 46% Hispanic.

The average white person’s failure to engage meaningfully with people of color isn’t solely a matter of personal choice, though that is certainly part of it.  Nor is it simply a function of the country being majority white, non-Hispanic (but not for long).  White insularity is caused, too, by occupational and residential segregation which, in turn, is the result of both individual choices and institutionalized mechanisms that keep black people in poverty and prison.

If we want the people of America to embrace justice, we must make our institutions just.

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.

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

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.

W.E.B. DuBois on the Indifference of White America

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W.E.B. DuBois (1934):

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

- From “A Negro Nation Within a Nation.

Borrowed from an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Photo from ibtimes.com.

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.

Watch London Cops Subdue, Not Kill, a Man Yelling and Swinging a Machete

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away? 

The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011.  In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.  According to The Economist:

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The article includes this graphic:

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I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

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

Saturday Stat: The Invention of the “Illegal Immigrant”

Citing the immigration scholar, Francesca Pizzutelli, Fabio Rojas explains that the phrase “illegal immigrant” wasn’t a part of the English language before the 1930s.  More often, people used the phrase “irregular immigrant.”   Instead of an evaluative term, it was a descriptive one referring to people who moved around and often crossed borders for work.

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Rojas points out that the language began to change after anti-immigration laws were passed by Congress in the 1920s.  The graph above also reveals a steep climb in both “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” beginning in the ’70s.

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.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Attacks Portrayals of Black Men Killed by Police

This has been a hard week.  Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago.  This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb.  Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.

The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.

Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.

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As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:

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Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw.  Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.

Using the image above, though, is not neutrality.  At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice.  It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.

There are consequential choices to be made.  As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:

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Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.

Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.

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The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is.  It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:

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The New York Times reports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of  August 12th.  I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.

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.