In a speech he gave in 1885, Frederick Douglass said that “where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” If the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., are indicative of the mistrust of law enforcement and the justice system by communities of color, 129Douglass’ words might still be true. But while some Americans have criticized our nation’s recent conversations about race as “race baiting,” a recent report by The Sentencing Project sheds light on why we must continue to confront our biases.
Sentencing Project research analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh has found that engrained racial biases about who is most likely to commit crimes affect the severity of punishments Americans are comfortable doling out. Combing through two decades of research, Ghandnoosh found that white Americans not only overestimated the number of crimes people of color commit but are also willing to condone harsher punishments.
“Researchers have shown the more whites think a higher proportion of crime is committed by African Americans and Latinos, the more they support harsh criminal justice policies,” she says. This includes supporting policies such as the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentencing, and sentencing juveniles as adults.
While the information Ghandnoosh and Sentencing Project research associate Christopher Lewis uncovered isn’t new, their goal is to highlight the data because it illuminates a critical point: You don’t have to be a self-described racist to keep racial biases alive.
“It [the report] doesn’t just describe the bias that results from overt racism or prejudice,” Ghandnoosh says, “but instead it suggests that even people who believe in racial equality and support racial equality are likely to have these overestimations and, as a result, support harsher punishments.”
How can those who support equality and hold progressive views still harbor unconscious prejudices that translate into thinking people of color commit a higher proportion of crimes?
“One of the biggest reasons has to do with the media and the ideas that we get as a result of the broad array of messaging around us about who are the people who commit crimes,” Ghandnoosh says. “When it comes to TV news, reality TV shows, and even drama shows, how they depict who commits crime is a really big part of it.”
A recent Media Matters for America study backs this up. In an analysis of news stations in New York City, Media Matters found “coverage of cases involving black suspects outpaced historical arrest rates from NYPD statistics.”
In other words, news outlets aired a higher percentage of stories involving suspects of color than of those who were actually suspects in a crime. According to Ghandnoosh’s research, that makes white people think African Americans and Latinos commit more offenses than they do. It also leads white people to believe they are more likely to be victimized by a person of color, despite that the majority of crimes are intra-racial—whites victimizing other whites, blacks victimizing other blacks, Latinos victimizing other Latinos.
Even more troubling is that “crime coverage also betrays subtler racial differences,” the Sentencing Project authors write. “A study of television news found that black crime suspects were presented in more threatening contexts than whites: black suspects were disproportionately shown in mug shots and in cases where the victim was a stranger.”
Ghandnoosh explains why biased media coverage is problematic. “News agencies will gravitate toward stories where the perpetrator or suspect is someone of color and the victim is white,” she says. “So we are not only given these messages about who is committing crimes, but whites also have this exaggerated sense of victimization and potential victimization. So that’s a really toxic combination.”
While engrained racial biases have very serious consequences for those who are swept into the criminal justice system—and result in policies like stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, and harsh punishments that disproportionally penalize people of color—Ghandnoosh is still hopeful these inequalities can be rectified.
“A lot of people are not overtly prejudged anymore in our society. Even though people subscribe to notions of racial equality, a lot of times these very unconscious biases affect the work that they do and their decisions,” she says. “But the more that they’re aware of this influences, the more likely they are to adjust their behavior.”
This is particularly helpful for criminal justice professionals, who can then investigate policies and procedures that may contribute to bias and amplifying racial disparities. Ghandnoosh points to a partnership between the New York County District Attorney’s Office and the Vera Institute of Justice. Together the two are investigating whether or not the race of a defendant affected the outcome of the case.
Though many Americans believe we should just stop talking about race, burying our heads in the sand won’t make the problem go away. Ghandnoosh recommends keeping up the dialogue.
“The more we talk about race, the more we make its impact known to people. Even people who think they aren’t biased,” she says.