The United States’ Response to Crime: Racial Bias is Alive and Well

BY: SAWYEH ESMAILI

The United States has had the world’s highest incarceration rate since 2002.[1] A racialized perception of crime and a broken criminal justice system are behind the globe’s largest prison population. Our country’s response to crime and the media’s coverage of those who perpetrate it reflect the deeply ingrained racial bias of the American people. These biases have detrimental effects for society at large. According to a 2010 survey conducted by The Sentencing Project, white respondents overestimate the actual amount of crime African Americans commit by 20-30%.[2] Implicit bias research shows that white Americans (including criminal justice practitioners) generally associate criminality with black and Latino communities.[3] A report by The Sentencing Project, titled Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, indicates that those who associate crime with racial minorities are more supportive of punitive policies.[4] In sum, white Americans generally associate crime with certain communities of color; as a result, this “othering” of criminals leads to stronger support for punitive policies. This perception is a two-way street as American society is also generally more sympathetic to white perpetrators of crime.

Take the “drug war” of the past generation. The response to widespread crack use in the 1980s (which was perceived as an inner-city drug used primarily by impoverished black communities) was the establishment of incredibly harsh mandatory prison sentences.[5] Comparatively, the response to today’s heroin “epidemic,” (a problem faced primarily by suburban white communities) has focused on rehabilitative measures, such as making naloxone, a prescription drug that helps counter the effect of a heroin overdose, more readily available.[6]

The media’s rhetoric is also a reflection of the racist undertones of our responses to crime. Myths (now proved to be false) of “crack babies,” “welfare queens,” and “superpredators” dominated the news in the 1980s and 90s, vilifying communities of color. Now, the heroin “epidemic” is depicted as a disease that must be treated, and those who are affected must be empowered to rehabilitate.[7] As Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, explains, “[w]hen the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish. When it’s white, then we search for answers.”[8]

This view is not exclusive to drugs. We see the furtherance of these attitudes by looking at the recent headlines concerning mass shootings. The media portrays white killers, such as James Holmes (Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooter) and Robert Dear (Planned Parenthood shooter), as mentally ill and illustrates them them as troubled loners.[9] On the other hand, the media feels all too comfortable quickly labeling anyone of darker skin a “terrorist” or “thug,” portraying him or her as a dehumanized monster deserving punishment, regardless of whether that person committed the crime or was a victim of it.[10]

“It’s a stark contrast that plays out all around us, the horrifying product of a culture, of a media, and of social, economic, and political structures that teach us to value white men more than any other kind of human being[],” writes Rebecca Traister for New York Magazine.[11] Of course, white offenders are generally charged, tried, and convicted for their crimes; however, their portrayal in the media often ensures that they are understood both as a criminal and a human being.[12] Yet the media makes no attempts in illustrating people of color’s humanity or discussing how they are likely the product of a broken system, not an innate miscreant. Recall, for example, an article in The New York Times, describing Michael Brown as “no angel” and emphasizing his past deviances.[13]

The consequences of these attitudes are pervasive and destructive. As history shows, we end up with more punitive policies largely affecting communities of color.[14] Moreover, it undermines the public’s sense of safety.[15]   In cultivating a culture of fear of the “other,” we as a society perpetuate already existing racial stereotypes and biases. As a result, communities of color generally preserve a fear and distrust of law enforcement. This distrust affects interactions between racial minorities and law enforcement, both for reliance on services and cooperation purposes.[16] Tragically, racial perceptions of crime have led to countless deaths of innocent people of color.

Awareness is the first step to solving the problem. The less natural these reactions to crime start to feel, the better. We have the responsibility to dismantle our country’s deeply rooted bigotry.   Only when we recognize that our societal reaction to crime hinges on the color of the perpetrator’s skin can we truly begin to address the structural issues that plague our criminal justice system.


 

[1] Tyjen Tsai & Paola Scommegna, U.S. Has World’s Highest Incarceration Rate, Population Reference Bureau, http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx.

[2] Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies 3 (The Sentencing Project, 2014).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Andrew Cohen, How White Users Made Heroin a Public-Health Problem, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/crack-heroin-and-race/401015/.

[6] Id.; Heroin in the Suburbs: An American Epidemic, Fox News Health, http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/08/21/heroin-in-suburbs-american-epidemic.html; Katharine Q. Seelye, In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/31/us/heroin-war-on-drugs-parents.html.

[7] Andrew Cohen, How White Users Made Heroin a Public-Health Problem, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/crack-heroin-and-race/401015/.

[8] Andrew Cohen, How White Users Made Heroin a Public-Health Problem, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/crack-heroin-and-race/401015/.

[9] Rebecca Traister, Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?, New York Magazine: The Cut, http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/12/white-male-murderers-planned-parenthood-robert-dear.html.

[10] Jon Eligon, Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/25/us/michael-brown-spent-last-weeks-grappling-with-lifes-mysteries.html.

[11] Rebecca Traister, Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?, New York Magazine: The Cut, http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/12/white-male-murderers-planned-parenthood-robert-dear.html.

[12] Id.

[13] Jon Eligon, Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/25/us/michael-brown-spent-last-weeks-grappling-with-lifes-mysteries.html.

[14] Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies 3 (The Sentencing Project, 2014).

[15] Id. at 34-35.

[16] Id. at 33-34.

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