Racial Disparities: A Result of Symbolic Threat or Interracial Competition?

That blacks are over-represented at all levels of the American criminal-justice system is well-known and beyond dispute.  Much less clear is what causes these racial disparities.  Although some of the disparities may result from elevated rates and seriousness of crime-commission by blacks, such behavioral differences probably cannot fully account for disparities in arrests, incarceration, and the like.  (See my article here for further discussion.)

What else might account for disparities?  This is the subject of an interesting new article by Shaun Thomas, Stacy Moak, and Jeffrey Walker, “The Contingent Effect of Race in Juvenile Court Decisions: The Role of Racial and Symbolic Threat,” forthcoming in Race and Justice.  

More specifically, Thomas et al. test two competing theories to account for what they call “disproportionate minority contact.”   Continue reading “Racial Disparities: A Result of Symbolic Threat or Interracial Competition?”

The “New Jim Crow” Reconsidered

Over the past two decades, several astute commentators have observed that the contemporary American criminal-justice system seems like a revival of the old Jim Crow system of racial subordination in the South. It’s hard to deny that there are at least a few grains of truth to the analogy. African Americans have borne the brunt of the “war on crime” that was launched in this country in the late 1960’s and dramatically escalated in the 1980’s – a time period that also happened to coincide with major political backlashes against school desegregation, affirmative action, and other civil-rights initiatives that were intended to dismantle Jim Crow. Indeed, leaders of the same political party led the charge on both fronts, and, as illustrated by the infamous Willie Horton ad, were hardly above playing on racial fears in advancing their “tough-on-crime” positions. It is understandable that critics might see the mass incarceration of blacks, the related mass disenfranchisement of blacks, disproportionately high stop-and frisk rates for black males, and so forth as something other than merely the incidental byproducts of a crackdown on crime.

Now comes an interesting rejoinder from James Forman, Jr.: “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” 87 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 21 (2012). Forman is perhaps a surprising critic of the “New Jim Crow” thesis, for he is an unabashed opponent of mass incarceration, and the Jim Crow analogy seems a rhetorically powerful way to challenge this phenomenon. In part, what seems to motivate his critique is the sense that a particular focus on black grievances may impede the emergence of a larger, more effective multiracial movement against mass incarceration.

Three of Forman’s points strike me as particularly interesting.

Continue reading “The “New Jim Crow” Reconsidered”

Comparing Police Stops of Citizens in New York and Milwaukee, Part II

As I discussed in my previous post, frequent police stops of citizens may ultimately prove counterproductive to crime-fighting objectives.  In this regard, I also suggested that who is targeted and how they are treated may actually matter more than the sheer quantity of stops.  If that’s right, then several aspects of the New York stop data are troubling.

Racial disparities are one concern.  Black and Hispanic males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for more than 40% of the stops made by the NYPD in 2011, even though they amount to less than 5% of the city’s population.

Continue reading “Comparing Police Stops of Citizens in New York and Milwaukee, Part II”

Comparing Police Stops of Citizens in New York and Milwaukee, Part I

Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report on police stops in New York City, prompting a New York Times editorial yesterday that was quite critical of the police.  As the Times put it, “The mounting evidence reveals a pattern of abusive policing that warrants the attention of the Justice Department, which should be using its broad authority to investigate these practices.”  The newspaper’s criticisms focused particularly on racial disparities in the NYPD’s stops and related uses of force.

Apparently by coincidence, the Milwaukee Police Department also released data last week on police stops, covering both subject stops (the topic of the NYCLU report) and traffic stops.  The data indicate that the MPD and the NYPD have both significantly increased their numbers of stops in recent years.  Although New York had far more subject stops than Milwaukee in 2011 in absolute terms, Milwaukee is actually in front of the Big Apple on a per capita basis.

Continue reading “Comparing Police Stops of Citizens in New York and Milwaukee, Part I”

Should Police Be Required to Equalize Arrest Rates in Poor and Middle-Class Neighborhoods?

When police choose to arrest a resident of a particular neighborhood for committing a crime in that neighborhood, the decision produces certain costs and benefits for the neighborhood.  And when police concentrate resources in certain neighborhoods, or adopt different enforcement strategies in different parts of a city, the costs and benefits of arrests will be distributed unequally among neighborhoods.  Such distributional consequences of policing strategy are the subject of an interesting new article by Nirej Sekhon, “Redistributive Policing,” 101 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 1171 (2011).

It seems self-evident that policing strategies should not be regressive, that is, exacerbate preexisting socioeconomic disparities among neighborhoods.  Rather, the ideal should be to distribute the benefits and burdens of arrests evenly across neighborhoods.  The problem, of course, is that crime rates are not distributed evenly.

Sekhon’s solution is to tie neighborhood arrest rates to neighborhood crime rates:

The obligation to distribute policing costs equitably ought to require police departments to make arrests in proportion to the rate of specific criminal misconduct in specific areas. Police departments should not arrest offenders in one community while allowing those in another community to engage in similar conduct with impunity.  (1220)

This might have a large impact on drug enforcement, for instance.  Since the rates of drug use appear no less among well-off whites than among poor minorities, Sekhon’s approach would seem to require police to intensify enforcement in middle-class neighborhoods, deescalate enforcement in poor neighborhoods, or both.

Continue reading “Should Police Be Required to Equalize Arrest Rates in Poor and Middle-Class Neighborhoods?”

Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture

The Sentencing Project has a new report on prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18.  Entitled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” the report presents the results from a national survey of more than 1,500 JLWOP inmates.  The report is very timely in light of the Supreme Court’s two pending JLWOP cases — perhaps the new information will help to convince the justices that JLWOP does indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, even for homicide crimes.  In any event, here are some of the highlights.

Continue reading “Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture”

Explaining the Racial Threat Hypothesis

I have previously written about the racial threat hypothesis, which seems a potentially powerful way of explaining why attitudes toward crime and punishment vary so much from community to community and state to state. The basic idea is that a large minority population fuels demand by the majority for greater social control, including harsher punishment.

There is some empirical support for the hypothesis, but it is unclear what exactly drives the link between minority population and the demand for social control. An interesting new article, however, helps to illuminate the underlying dynamics: Justin T. Pickett et al., “Reconsidering the Relationship Between Perceived Neighborhood Racial Composition and Whites’ Perceptions of Victimization Risk: Do Racial Stereotypes Matter,” 50 Criminology 145 (2012).

The study is based on telephone surveys of 1,273 white Floridians and 743 whites from around the nation. The authors focused particularly on the connection between black population and white fear of victimization. Five notable conclusions emerge.

Continue reading “Explaining the Racial Threat Hypothesis”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 4: The Racial Threat Hypothesis

In the previous post in this series, I highlighted a wide gap in the incarceration rates of Indiana and Minnesota, with Wisconsin in the middle.  The ordering of the three states from highest incarceration rate to lowest corresponds with the ordering from highest rate of violent crime to lowest.  However, for reasons I explained in the previous post, I don’t think  we ought to end our analysis with the simple assertion that high crime drives high incarceration.  For one thing, there is Minnesota: with a crime rate only a little lower than Wisconsin’s, Minnesota has an incarceration rate that is much lower.  There must be other factors at play besides just the crime rate to account for Minnesota’s incarceration rate.  For another, to focus on the crime-incarceration connection begs the question of what drives the very different crime rates of the three states.

In this post, I’ll explore another possible way of accounting for differences in the three states’ incarceration rates, the racial threat hypothesis.  The basic idea is this: a larger racial minority population causes the majority to feel more threatened by the minority and consequently to prefer to stronger social control measures.

Here are the key numbers from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota:




Black Population (2010)




Blacks as Percentage of Total Population (2010)




Imprisonment Rate (2010, per 100,000)




As you can see, the incarceration-rate order tracks the order based on the size of the each state’s black population.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 4: The Racial Threat Hypothesis”

Police Stops Go Up, Citizen Complaints Go Down — What Gives?

The Milwaukee Police Department has just released some new data on traffic and subject stops. There is a fascinating story here on policing strategy. Since 2007, Milwaukee has experiened a dramatic increase in the number of stops: both traffic and subject stops are up close to 250%. This has been part of a deliberate strategy to increase the number of police-citizen contacts, especially in high-crime neighborhoods. (The MPD has also been very active over the past four years in promoting uncoerced police-citizen contacts, too.) The objectives are to gather intelligence, disrupt criminal activity, and enhance community perceptions of safety in public spaces.

As hoped, crime has indeed gone down considerably since 2007: violent crime is down 24%, and property crime is down 21%. Whether and to what extent the increased-stops strategy has caused the crime drop is uncertain — the MPD has also made some other significant changes in the past four years, and, in any event, crime has been dropping nationwide — but the causal claim strikes me as at least facially plausible. Providing some additional support is a month-by-month breakdown of auto theft and robbery data: in general, in months when stops have lagged, auto thefts and robberies have spiked; in months when stops have spiked, auto thefts and robberies have dropped.

But safety has a cost.

Continue reading “Police Stops Go Up, Citizen Complaints Go Down — What Gives?”

Why Are Black Suspects More Likely to Give a False Confession Than White Suspects?

That is the question Cynthia Najdowski explores in an interesting new article, “Stereotype Threat in Criminal Interrogations: Why Innocent Black Suspects are at Risk for Confessing Falsely,” 17 Pscyh., Pub. Pol’y & L. 562 (2011).  A growing body of empirical research does indeed suggest that blacks are more likely to give a false confession than whites, but why?

Najdowski’s paper does not present any new empirical research of her own, but she does offer a new hypothesis to explain the racial disparity in confessions.  Prior scholarship has attempted to account for the disparity by reference to (1) “cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication styles, which would cause Black suspects to appear more deceptive and police investigators to put more pressure on them to confess”; and (2) “status differences in speech patterns,” leading black suspects to “react to false accusations with denials, hostility, and defensiveness, which probably solidifies investigators’s suspicions” and thereby also prompts greater pressure on the suspects to confess.  (563)

To these theories, Najdowski adds a new “stereotype threat” hypothesis.

Continue reading “Why Are Black Suspects More Likely to Give a False Confession Than White Suspects?”