Whites’ Perception of Black Prison Populations mirror Incarceration Reform Support

Stanford research suggests support for incarceration mirrors whites' perception of black prison populations

Informing the white public that the percentage of black Americans in prison is far greater than the percentage of white people behind bars may not spur support for reform. Instead, it might actually generate support for harsh laws and sentencing.

This article highlights a very controversial and important issue facing our nation right now, one that has been brought to the forefront of media after many years of being out of view from the public eye. Racial inequality in America’s incarceration rates is being used as a systemic form of racism in many areas of the country. The common argument that many supporters of fighting this injustice use is that while crime rates are roughly equal among white and black populations, the black incarceration rate is far greater than that of other races. They show that while the black population is only 12% of the overall population, they make up over 40% of the nation’s incarcerated peoples, which is most definitely statistically significant. However, this study shows that the tactic of showing the high incarceration rates of black Americans actually hurts the cause of removing support for the punitive law policies that lead to this injustice.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers created 2 experiments, both in which they randomly assigned participants to one of two groups, one that showed a video or statistic with a higher number of black prisoners and one with a video or statistic with lower number of black prisoners. Then the participants were given the option of supporting the removal of the stop-and-frisk or 3-strikes policies. In both experiments, the lower percentage group had more supporters willing to sign the petition. However, a source of bias in these studies is that the samples were created of all white participants. There may be a confounding variable in that participants assume that if there is less percentage of black prisoners, there must be more of white prisoners, and thus this is the cause of them supporting the removal of the policies. Along with this, in America, there are far more racial groups than blacks and whites. I propose a third experiment in which white participants are given one of two fake statistics (presented as being true) about prisoner demographics. In both, black prisoners only make up 40% of the prisoners. However, in the first set of statistics, whites make up the majority of the rest of the percentage. In the second set, another racial group, such as hispanic Americans make up the majority of the percentage. Then, we see offer both groups a petition against the policies, and see which group has more participants sign the petition. In this experiment, the independent variable is the presented information on the percentage of prisoners that are white. This is unlike the original experiments in which the independent variable was the presented information on the percentage of prisoners that are black. Like the original experiments, the dependant variable is still support against said policies and is operationally defined by willingness to sign petition against the policies. The participants of this study will be randomly selected from the population of white Americans. The racial makeup of the subjects is important because the experiment is to determine if the ingroup bias of white americans towards other white americans affects their decisions in fighting unjust policing policies. I hypothesize that the group that is presented with a higher percentage of incarcerated white persons will be more willing to sign the petition.

The studies from this article as well as the new study proposed could be very important as it could change the strategy used by activists to promote their cause as it shows that sometimes pure statistics are not enough to change people’s’ beliefs and that fighting inequality may take calling upon people’s hidden prejudices to helping people who are “similar to them”.