Race, Punishment and Public Opinion

Race, Punishment, and Public Opinion

Vincent Hutchingsfeaturedarticles_pop_race

On August 9, 2014, an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The deadly confrontation occurred under disputed circumstances and led to weeks of racially charged protests in the small, predominantly African American community. On November 24, 2014, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that Officer Wilson would not be indicted for the fatal shooting of Brown. A CBS news poll conducted shortly after these events in early December found that whites and African Americans had starkly different reactions to the decision not to indict Wilson.1 In response to a question asking whether the shooting was “justified, not justified, or don’t you know enough to say,” the survey found that 64% of black respondents thought the shooting was not justified, compared to only 20% of whites. Conversely, a plurality of white respondents (43%) thought the shooting justified, compared to only 6% of blacks.

Public opinion researchers have known for some time that racial divides of this magnitude are not uncommon.2 In its September 3, 2014, report entitled Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, The Sentencing Project provides an excellent summary of this literature.3 The Sentencing Project is a nonprofit organization that has sought since its establishment in 1986 to promote reforms to the criminal justice system, mostly by advocating for alternatives to incarceration and reductions in unjust racial disparities. The primary author of the report, Nazgol Ghandnoosh, does more than simply document and explain the differing perceptions of blacks and whites, however; she also details how racial prejudice contributes to the maintenance of a biased and punitive criminal justice system. Ghandnoosh’s training as a sociologist is clearly on display in the report, which relies on a broad array of sociological, psychological, and political science scholarship. As the country continues to grapple with a series of controversial police shootings of unarmed black men, women, and children over the past several months, The Sentencing Project’s report provides a sobering account of the ways in which racial bias, in one form or another, is implicated in these tragedies.

Race, Punishment, and Public Opinion, by Vincent Hutchings, Perspectives on Politics / Volume 13 / Issue 03 / September 2015, pp 757-761

1 Comment

  1. Mr. Hutchings:
    I wonder how many of your respondents, on either side, have read the DOJ report or the initial investigation report and if they had, would they hold the same opinion. Both investigations, backed by scientific evidence, proved Darren Wilson was innocent and justified in using deadly force. I know this is hard for people to accept but it is not okay to rob a store, attack a police officer, and try to take his gun away. If you try to take an officer’s gun from him he can only assume that if you are successful in wrestling his handgun from him, you will use that gun against him, at that point it becomes a matter of survival. It is misleading to say an unarmed black teenager. That teenager was trying to arm himself with the officers weapon. In reality, the officer acted in self defense. Michael Brown would be alive today if he simply followed Officer Wilson’s instructions. This fact is overlooked by those wanting to paint all police as racists.

    All this being said, we do have a problem in our justice system. I encourage you to look back at history to the 1960s. The problems that we faced pre Watts riots are still here today. Certainly there have been changes since 1965, but if you read Robert Conot’s “Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness”, the parallels between then and now are frightening. Conot found that it was not just the police that had to change but all branches of the criminal justice system needed reform, particularly the prosecutor and courts. However, it is not simply the criminal justice system, all branches of government require reform. This is similar to the findings of the Attorney General’s report on Ferguson.

    Your statistics showing the differences between white and black opinions is fairly standard. In a study conducted in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2007 we found similar statistics. This suggests we have a significant racial divide in the U.S. The divide between white and blacks applies across all platforms of society, not just police. The point I am trying to make is that the racial divide crosses all aspects of our society, not just police.

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