The Bias of White Americans

It seems that racial perceptions of crime have helped to create biased, over-harsh and counterproductive criminal justice policies in the USA. A report published last month* establishes that white Americans significantly overestimate the proportion of crimes committed by racial minorities. For instance, a 2010 survey concluded that white people overestimate by 20-30% the proportion of burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime committed by African Americans. The report outlines the process by which such racial bias leads to many white people favoring punitive sentencing; this in turn weakens trust in the justice system and compromises public safety.

The continuing bias of the white American public is perhaps not surprising, given that even some policymakers make public statements that inaccurately associate crime with racial minorities. The media often and influentially fuel the fire, misleadingly focusing on crime victims as whites, perpetrators as blacks. In this they apparently “us(e) stereotypes grounded in White racism and White fear of Black crime.” Empathy towards people of color is further inhibited by a tendency to avoid even naming black and Latino crime suspects, whereas white suspects are more frequently individualized.

The report demonstrates that white Americans working in criminal justice are not immune from bias. Unfortunately, this prejudice is transferred into many decisions that detrimentally impact people of color at every stage of the criminal justice system:

“From police officers’ selection of whom to stop and search, judges’ and administrators’ bail determinations, prosecutors’ charging and plea bargaining decisions, to parole board recommendations about whom to release – each stage of the criminal justice system is affected by policies and discretion that often unintentionally disfavor low-income individuals and people of color.”

It is against this backdrop, then, that the cases of Willie Jerome Manning are set. When racial bias is factored in we can deduce that the white citizens of Mississippi are unlikely to take as seriously as they should the many anomalies in both Willie’s cases. White dominated media outlets probably focus more on the white victims in one of his cases than if Willie were himself white; they are also more unlikely to present him as an individual than if he were white. The unjustified striking of black jurors at one of his trials makes sense when examined through the lens of racial bias; and a predominance of (racially biased and more punitive) white jurors statistically increased the chances of him receiving both a guilty verdict and a death sentence.

The report concludes with recommendations:

“The media, researchers, policymakers, and criminal justice practitioners can draw on proven interventions to reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system.”

For instance, for the media these include “expanding sources beyond criminal justice professionals, contextualizing crime within broader underlying social problems, providing in-depth coverage of more typical crimes rather than highlighting anomalous ones, and auditing content to compare coverage with regional crime trends”.

We can only hope that policies such as these will be implemented in Mississippi in time to help Willie.

* Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., research analyst at The Sentencing Project

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