Dara Lind in Vox:
[A]s [criminal-justice] reforms move from proposals to actual bills, the key question is how to persuade the general public that change is needed. A new study suggests that highlighting racism in the criminal justice system is not the answer, and in fact pushes white voters in the opposite direction. Even when whites believe the current laws are too harsh, they're less likely to support changing the law if they're reminded that the current prison population is disproportionately black.
The study, which was conducted by Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University and published in Psychological Science, consisted of two experiments.
The first experiment was conducted in San Francisco in 2012, when the state of California was considering a reform to its “three-strikes” law. Researchers showed white commuters a short video that featured a series of inmate mugshots. One version of the video reflected the total prison population: 25-percent black. The other reflected the population imprisoned under the three-strikes law: 45-percent black.
Both groups agreed that the three-strikes law was too harsh. But if the video they'd seen had more black inmates in it, they were less likely to agree to sign a petition to change it. More than half of the first group signed the petition; only a quarter of the second group did.
In other words, according to the researchers, “the blacker the prison population, the less willing registered voters were to take steps to reduce the severity of a law they acknowledged to be overly harsh.”
The second experiment involved asking white New Yorkers about the stop-and-frisk program — after telling some of them that the New York state prison population was 40 percent black, and the rest that New York City's prison population was 60 percent black. Both groups agreed that stop-and-frisk was punitive. But again, the group that heard the 60-percent statistic was substantially less likely to want to sign a petition to end stop-and-frisk.