Unifying the Divide: Race and Criminal Justice in America

In a 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama delivered one of the most memorable lines of his political career. “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America,” he said. “There's the United States of America.”

It was a powerful, if simple, statement of unity and togetherness; the convention hall thundered with applause.

A decade later, the experience of being black or white or Latino or Asian remains separate and distinct. The death of Michael Brown this month and of Trayvon Martin over two years ago—and the reactions to these tragic events—magnifies this separateness in ways both stark and divisive. How one frames the narrative of unarmed black men who are shot and killed by armed white men is impacted in large part by one’s race.

In the aftermath of Brown’s death, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults and found that blacks were twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting raised important questions of race. Whites, on the other hand, were more likely to view the issue of race as overblown and three times as likely as blacks to express confidence in the investigation.

These results should not be surprising. A preponderance of research points to a deep and persistent gap between whites and blacks on issues of criminal justice and fairness.

A recent study by Stanford University has found that whites may favor tougher laws on crime when confronted with the knowledge that the percentage of black Americans behind bars is much larger than the percentage of white Americans in prison. In one experiment for the study, the researchers asked white participants to watch one of two videos of mug shots of male inmates and afterward to sign a petition calling for lessening the severity of California’s three-strikes law. Participants from the group that watched the video with more images of black men were almost twice as likely to decline support for the petition.

In a discussion of their book, Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites, with the Washington Post, political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley cite the persistent stereotype of blacks as violent criminals: “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, to endorse harsh treatment of a black (versus a white) suspect.”

So what are the lessons to be carried forward?

For one, we cannot simply present people with statistics on racial inequities in the criminal justice system and expect their perspectives to change. To challenge and change people’s beliefs, those statistics must be explained within the context of the justice system’s systemic targeting of low-income, minority communities, so that people understand why the numbers are what they are.

Speaking to a room of White House reporters on the subject of Trayvon Martin last year, President Obama said, “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society…But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are—they’re better than we were—on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”

“They’re better than we are” is not quite a policy reform agenda around which communities can unite and advocates can push for change, but the sentiment is important. It speaks to the history of social change, however incremental. It speaks to the progress being made across a range of previously intractable social issues, including gay marriage. It speaks to an ideal that people are not inert and that we can, if we try, become better versions of ourselves. 

[photo credit: Elvert Barnes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/perspective/]