By John Sides
Much of the difference comes down to either personal or vicarious experiences that people have with police and the courts. We found that African Americans, especially younger black men, were far more likely than whites to report being treated unfairly by the police because of their race. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll found that one of every four black men under age 35 said that the police have treated them unfairly during the last 30 days. Little has changed since our survey. And these contacts do not have to be personal. In a recent study we conducted with Jeffery Mondak, we found that the distrust felt by many blacks is compounded by their vicarious experiences. Many of their black acquaintances have also had similar negative encounters with the law.
Q: Are there factors that matter beyond personal or vicarious experiences?
A: So much of an individual’s judgment of the justice system comes down to perceived process. When African Americans see the enormous overrepresentation of blacks in correctional facilities, they assume there has been blatant procedural injustice—injustice due to prevalent biases in apprehensions, arrests, trials, sentencing, laws, and more. In his remarks Friday about the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, President Obama himself described this view: “The African-American community is…knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
But in our data many whites (about 60 percent) believed that blacks deserve to be imprisoned more frequently. They often based their explanations of racial discrepancies in the prisons on racial stereotypes: Blacks, they believed, are more inclined to commit crimes or just less likely to respect authority. To a considerable extent, therefore, African Americans attribute outcomes to procedural bias, while whites are more willing to attribute them to character flaws of blacks.
A: The separate realities of whites and blacks affect those opinions too. Whites are significantly more likely than blacks to support capital punishment, three-strikes laws, and spending money building more prisons (rather than funding antipoverty programs) to prevent crime. Because blacks do not trust the justice system, they do not believe that punishment will be handed out fairly. But because whites do believe the system is fair and because they are more likely to hold blacks personally responsible for the crimes for which they are accused, they support considerably more punitive policies.
Given the pervasive cynicism and distrust among so many African Americans, as well as the belief in the integrity of the fairness of the justice system so prevalent among many whites, it was almost inevitable that responses to the Zimmerman acquittal would be racially polarized. Surveys have already documented far less support for, and far more disappointment with, the verdict among blacks than among whites.
In a recent YouGov poll 75 percent of black respondents said that they would have found Zimmerman guilty of a crime—39 percent said guilty of manslaughter, while 36 percent said guilty of murder. Among white respondents, only 34 percent would have found him guilty of one of the two crimes. The dominant emotions expressed by black Americans over the verdict were disappointment (53 percent) and anger (25 percent), whereas whites tended to say that they were pleased (25 percent) and relieved (21 percent) as well as disappointed (23 percent).
Q: What do the book’s findings tell us about the broader impact on public attitudes of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?
A: Social scientists have uncovered an avalanche of evidence documenting whites’ stereotypes of blacks as violent and criminal. Social psychologists conducting controlled lab experiments, for example, have demonstrated that merely thinking briefly about blacks can lead people, including police officers, to evaluate ambiguous behavior as aggressive, to miscategorize harmless objects as weapons, to shoot quickly and, at times, inappropriately, and to endorse harsh treatment of a black (versus a white) suspect. And the association between race and crime is not strong, but also outside people’s awareness and control to some extent (see, for example, research here, here; and here).
The Trayvon Martin case demonstrates how the association between race and violence in the minds of many non-blacks is a recipe for tragic misperception and a failure to correct, or even to recognize, how stereotypes often lead to a series of faulty decisions and catastrophic errors.
If Trayvon Martin had been white it would be harder to make sense of the events surrounding the case—how Zimmerman assumed Martin, who was in a gated community carrying Skittles and a soft drink, was a dangerous criminal, why Zimmerman twice ignored the police dispatch asking him not to pursue Martin and instead confronted and shot him. It would be harder to understand how the Sanford police could have questioned Zimmerman and released him without charging him, or how for more than a month Zimmerman was not charged until a national outrage ensued, or how an all-white jury eventually acquitted Zimmerman for killing Martin.
From where we sit, which admittedly is far removed from the scene of the crime or the trial, the sequence of events should be informed by our knowledge of how racial stereotypes can bias judgments and rationalize decisions.
I have a conservative white friend who said none of his conservative white friends are talking about race in the Zimmerman case. So race isn't an issue. *headdesk*
For more on Trayvon Martin, see American "Justice" Protects White People and Zimmerman Verdict Shows America's Pathology.