Political Science Now

Race, Punishment and Public Opinion

Race, Punishment, and Public Opinion

Vincent Hutchings

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