Study: Whites Support Harsher Criminal Laws If They Think More Black People Are Arrested

"Our research shows that numbers don't always speak for themselves," says one author.

Posted: 08/12/2014 05:20 PM EDT

Despite constituting only 12 percent of the United States population, African-Americans makeup 40 percent of the country’s prison populace. However, a recent study suggests that knowing the major disparity between Black and white Americans in prison might actually make white people more supportive of policies that perpetuate the gap.

Rebecca Hetey, a postdoctoral scholar and the study’s lead author, and her faculty advisor Jennifer Eberhardt ran two separate experiments in San Francisco and New York City, involving more than 200 white participants and real petitions for alleviating the severity of three-strike laws and stop-and-frisk.

Most participants who were shown mug shots and statistics that confirmed racial discrepancies in prison were less likely to sign the petitions.

The study, which was published in Psychological Science, also argues that the expansion of harsh policies, like California’s Three Strike law and stop-and-frisk — and not higher crime rates — ultimately resulted in America having the largest per-capita prison population in the world.

"Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality," Hetey told Stanford News Service.

"But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

"Our research shows that numbers don't always speak for themselves," Eberhardt added. "Reducing inequality takes more than simply presenting people with evidence of extreme inequality."

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(Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

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