Whites’ Support of Prison Reform Depends on Their Perception of the Black Prison Population

Stanford-university-logoA new study by psychologists at Stanford University finds that when White Americans are informed about the disproportionate number of African Americans in prisons, they are less likely to support prison reform and are more likely to support policies that produce the unequal incarceration rates.

The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, White Americans were shown one of two videos of male prison inmates. In one video, 25 percent of the inmates in the video were Black men. In the second video, 45 percent of the inmates were Black men. All participants were then asked to sign a petition calling for an end to the “three strikes and your out law” that sends those with three felony convictions to prison for life. Half of the White participants who saw the video in which only 25 percent of the inmates were Black signed the petition. But only 27 percent of those White who saw the video where almost half the inmates were Black signed the petition.

A second experiment informed White Americans either that 40 percent of all prison inmates nationwide are Black or that 60 percent of all prison inmates in New York City are Black. They were then asked to sign a petition to end New York’s controversial “stop and frisk” law. Of those who were told about the lower national incarceration rate, 33 percent were willing to sign the petition. Of those who were told about the 60 percent Black incarceration rate in New York, only 12 percent were willing to sign the petition.

Rebecca Hetey, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford and lead author of the study, stated that “many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality. But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

The article, “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies,” was published on the website of the journal Psychological Science. It may be accessed here.

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