by Colin Asher April 23, 2010 05:47 AM
The idea that there are no racists in America is a popular political trope. Say whatever you want, support discriminatory public policy. As long as you follow your statements with the caveat “I mean, I’m not racist…” you’ll be just fine. And so it’s been with criminal justice policy. Even as our prison and jail populations have exploded — disproportionately locking up blacks and Latinos — there are still plenty of people out there who are willing to claim there’s nothing racist about supporting mass incarceration.
Recently, a pair of criminologists took the time evaluate that claim. What did they find? Well, it turns out that people who support punitive criminal justice policy also…tend to be racists.
In a paper entitled “The Social Sources of Americans’ Punitiveness,” James Unnever and Francis Cullen test three theories that have been offered by criminologists to explain why the U.S. public supports punitive criminal justice policies. Those theories are: 1). the escalating crime distrust model, 2). the moral decline model and 3). the racial animus model.
According to the first theory, because Americans fear crime and distrust our government, we support punitive laws and policies. The second proposes that people support punitive policies because they think our country’s morals are in decline. And the last theory suggests that racist beliefs are what fuel public support for harsh criminal punishments.
All three theories, the study found, explain why American support for so-called “tough-on-crime” penalties is so high. But it turns out that racist beliefs offer the best explanation of all.