Racism, fear of crime, and punitive public policy.

This Slate article is all over my Facebook news feed this week. It’s an article reporting on the results of a study by Stanford University psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt. According to Slate, the researchers conducted two different experiments, one in San Francisco and one in New York City. You can read the details of the study as reported by Slate or click through the link in the article to read the published journal article.

Ultimately, the article ties together a number of different phenomena: disproportionate minority incarceration and depiction of minorities as criminals, fear of crime, and support for tough-on-crime policies. Discussing this article in class could help to bolster lessons about the media’s focus on street crime and who gets depicted as “criminal.” It can also be connected to a discussion about fear of crime and risk perception, and how this gets twisted, too.

For example, a comment on one of these Facebook posts argued that the results of this study are not evidence of racism, just evidence of “common sense” because everyone knows young black men commit the most violent crime, and this should be as plain as day to anyone who has seen “the statistics.” This type of comment could easily come up in the classroom and presents a great opportunity to talk about what “the statistics” say about who is victimized by crime, who perpetrates that crime, and what we even think of as “crime.”

When it comes down to risk perception, perhaps the faces white voters should really fear are not black faces, but the faces of wealthy men in suits who agitate for deregulation and cut safety measures to increase profits, making workplaces dangerous, sometimes lethal, to the employees who work there. We should fear the faces of people like those behind the Enron scandal, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Texas City Refinery explosion, and the subprime mortgage crisis. Where is the “fear of crime” related to these incidents? Absent, because these incidents are presented as scandals, accidents, and disasters; “grand larceny” and “mass murder” are reserved for street crimes. This is an example of the way Derrick Bell argues that politicians with media influence “can so easily deflect attention from what they are not doing for all of us to what whites fear” people of color might do to them (Bell, 1998: viii, emphasis added)

The conversation could also highlight the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of racial profiling by using studies of traffic stops and stop-and-frisk/Terry stops. Research has demonstrated time and time again that police use race as a factor in deciding whom to follow, detain, search, or arrest. This heightened scrutiny inevitably turns up some wrong-doing (as would heightened scrutiny of any group), which is then used as evidence to justify the “profile,” even when such profiling is demonstrated to be ineffective. Consider the use of stop-and-frisk in New York City, where Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in Floyd v. The City of New York that the stop-and-frisk program had violated the constitutional rights of minority citizens:

At the heart of the Floyd case are statistics showing that the city conducted an astounding 4.4 million stops between January 2004 and June 2012. Of these, only 6 percent resulted in arrests and 6 percent resulted in summonses. In other words, 88 percent of the 4.4 million stops resulted in no further action — meaning a vast majority of those stopped were doing nothing wrong. More than half of all people stopped were frisked, yet only 1.5 percent of frisks found weapons. In about 83 percent of cases, the person stopped was black or Hispanic, even though the two groups accounted for just over half the population.

The evidence clearly showed that the police carried out more stops on black and Hispanic residents even when other relevant factors were controlled for, and officers were more likely to use force against minority residents even though stops of minorities were less likely to result in weapons seizures than stops of whites.

Judge Scheindlin found that “weapons were seized in 1.0% of the stops of blacks, 1.1% of the stops of Hispanics, and 1.4% of the stops of whites. Contraband other than weapons was seized in 1.8% of the stops of blacks, 1.7% of the stops of Hispanics, and 2.3% of the stops of whites” (Floyd v. City of New York, 08 Civ. 1034 [2013], 7). The cost of this meager haul was the harassment and inconvenience of thousands of innocent New York residents and further degradation of residents’ trust and confidence in the police and the “rule of law.”

If you want to introduce these topics to your students with a bit of humor, The Daily Show’s guest host John Oliver and correspondent Jessica Williams did a great bit on racial profiling and stop-and-frisk where they “flip the script” and ask why we’re not stopping the white-collar criminals on Wall Street:


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