Is the Criminal Justice System Colorblind? The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites

I’ve been remiss in linking to my latest post at Wonkblog.  It is an interview with political scientists Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz about their work on race and perceptions of the criminal justice system and the implications of this work for Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquital.  Here is an excerpt:

Q: Does a case like Trayvon Martin’s make the “realities” of blacks and whites more separate then?

A: Our research shows how events like the Trayvon Martin case widen the racial divide in the U.S.  When high-profile, incendiary events smack of racial profiling and/or police brutality against people of color, blacks, who view the system as discriminatory and distrust law enforcement, are deeply suspicious about whether justice will prevail. Whites who view the system as color-blind and are much more trusting of the police, discount the likelihood of police misconduct or racial bias when the suspects or victims are African American. Events like the Trayvon Martin case reinforce and intensify more generalized judgments about the fairness of the system.

More in the post.  Peffley and Hurwitz’s recent book is Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites.



11 Responses to Is the Criminal Justice System Colorblind? The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites

  1. Rosey July 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    And isn’t that the whole idea, after all? Ever widening all the gaps and filling the voids with agitation to keep all us little people busily away from the new realities ‘they’ are creating for us for them.

  2. Mark July 25, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    The point you cite in your post seems to make sense but when I went to the Wonkblog link and read the interview it raised questions about Peffley and Hurwitz. Are they analytical political scientists observing or are they players helping to create the outcome they cite? Their description of the Zimmerman case:

    “how Zimmerman assumed Martin, who was in a gated community carrying Skittles and a soft drink, was a dangerous criminal, why Zimmerman twice ignored the police dispatch asking him not to pursue Martin and instead confronted and shot him. It would be harder to understand how the Sanford police could have questioned Zimmerman and released him without charging him, or how for more than a month Zimmerman was not charged until a national outrage ensued, or how an all-white jury eventually acquitted Zimmerman for killing Martin.”

    is so misleading, incomplete and inaccurate that it seems calculated to encourage further distrust of the justice system by blacks. It’s as if they relied solely upon CNN and MSNBC for their understanding of the case and never paid attention to what actually happened at the trial.

    They then compound their incitement by noting approvingly that “a recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey found that younger people of all ethnic backgrounds were more likely than older people to say that Zimmerman should have been found guilty”, clearly indicating their personal viewpoints with complete disregard to the evidence in the case; I guess Zimmerman needed to be found guilty for the greater good regardless.

    For more detail on what actually happened at the trial (as well as debunking of the racial narrative) see the voluminous links at TalkLeft

    They then conclude that “The only way to end separate racial realities is either to educate whites about the experiences of blacks or, even better, to reduce blacks’ negative experiences with unfair treatment in the justice system”. While I agree with both I would add a third avenue to also pursue – avoid creating false racial narratives through the use of misleading and inflammatory information as the much of the media did and Peffley and Hurwitz do in this interview.

    • John Sides July 25, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Mark, two quick things:

      1) The first passage you cite is preceded by this phrase: “If Trayvon Martin had been white it would be harder to make sense of the events surrounding the case.” I think all Peffley and Hurwitz are saying is that Martin’s race means that a long previous literature in social science (on racial bias etc.) is relevant for thinking about the case, even though it alone cannot identify Zimmerman’s specific motives, the jury’s thought processes, etc. Had Martin been white, this literature would have been less relevant and thus we would have had less to go on.

      2) Their citation of the YouGov poll is in response to my question about mitigating the “separate realities.” They cite that poll “approvingly” not because they want people to think Zimmerman was guilty, but because it suggests that among younger generations there was less polarization by race. And polarization is at the heart of the two realities.

      That’s my understanding, in any case.

      • Mark July 25, 2013 at 6:09 pm #


        I appreciate your comments. On the first, I have no problem with the phrase you cite and with what they seem to intend with it. My issue is that their entire characterization of the case thereafter is just wrong and itself contributes to mistrust.

        On the second, I agree that yours is a plausible reading although in the context of how they discuss the case I think my interpretation is just as plausible.

        The problem with the Zimmerman case is that it would actually be easier and more productive to discuss the general points Peffley and Hurwitz make without reference to it. Because so many people invested so much in a presumed narrative of the case they’ve felt compelled to continue down the same path even when that narrative turned out to be completely mistaken. This case was not about what they wanted it to be about which means it is a terrible example to use to make their points.

        Thanks again

  3. Jack Morin July 25, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    “Social scientists have uncovered an avalanche of evidence documenting whites’ stereotypes of blacks as violent and criminal.”

    As usual it’s white people who are the problem, not the REALITY that blacks commit an inordinate amount of crime, as evidenced by the Census crime victimization survey which demonstrates, irrefutably, that blacks commit a an inordinate amount of crime.

    Also, blacks’ “perception” that the police are racist, corrupt, etc. is because there is a strong criminal element in the black community. I know a few people who have been locked up (both black and white). Guess what? When they come out, it’s always the a-hole cop, jerk prosecutor, and idiot judge who are at fault. These people were found guilty and admitted to be guilty. So that explains that.

    It’s blacks that need to change their behavior, not whites.

    This is why people are no longer taking PoliSci seriously.

    • Nameless July 26, 2013 at 12:34 am #

      Very true.

      One of the underlying factors in this story is denial. You take a desired point of view (all whites are racist, police are racist and corrupt because they unfairly target blacks, Zimmerman is a cold blooded murderer, etc.) and you actively deny everything that contradicts it (that police target blacks because blacks commit an inordinate amount of crime, that Zimmerman was defending himself and he has a number of head injuries to prove it whereas Martin had no injuries other than a gunshot wound, etc.)

      The problem is that we have an established media pattern: it’s usually necessary to act neutral even if one side is actually in the wrong, and it is not permitted to blame minorities for anything.

      Look at the following quote from the interview:

      “But in our data many whites (about 60 percent) believed that blacks deserve to be imprisoned more frequently. They often based their explanations of racial discrepancies in the prisons on racial stereotypes: Blacks, they believed, are more inclined to commit crimes or just less likely to respect authority. To a considerable extent, therefore, African Americans attribute outcomes to procedural bias, while whites are more willing to attribute them to character flaws of blacks.”

      We have a cold hard fact (blacks _do_ commit crimes significantly more frequently than whites: for example, for homicides, the ratio is around 7..8 and it stood there for the last 30+ years). In other words, in the quote above one side is clearly in the right and the other is clearly in denial. It’s interesting and might be worth discussing. Do they? Not at all: both the interviewer and scientists put on their impartial, “shape of the Earth: opinions differ” hats and plow on, while occasionally drifting to the side of minorities (e.g. implicitly saying that “blacks’ experiences with unfair treatment in the justice system” do exist and are common, rather than being primarily a denial-driven artifact.)
      This is all purely natural, since a discussion in any other key simply would not be publishable in the mainstream media and would be condemned to the likes of Red State, National Review & such.

      • Bulldog July 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

        The empirical evidence for unconscious and conscious forms of racial prejudice, and its consequences for nearly every important life domain, is overwhelming. It is based on scientific research conducted over the course of many decades, involving millions of participants from all over the country, thousands of studies, hundreds of methodologies, and countless researchers throughout the world. It is not a fiction adopted by Aftican Americans to deflect blame. You can dismiss that evidence and the clear racial disparities that saturate our society and claim its due to some character failing of black people. That’s up to you. But I call that racism.

        • Jack Morin August 4, 2013 at 1:39 am #

          Of course it is. I never said there was no prejudice nor claim that such prejudice can be unfairly debilitating. However, excusing the behavior that creates the prejudice will only lead more of such behavior (and more prejudice). We’ve worked our way around the cycle a few times, how about we take a different approach rather than just the same old blame whitey technique?

          We are getting to a point where clubbing people over the head with the “racist” tag isn’t going to matter anymore. People are sick of the crap, and they are starting to wake up to the fact that others are as well.

  4. JRLRC July 29, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    What Jack Morin says about (all) “blacks” and (all) “whites” is… just racism. And what he said about Political Science is just stupid…

    • Jack Morin August 4, 2013 at 1:33 am #

      All I’m saying is that it is ridiculous to expect human beings, who through millions of years of evolution biology are wired to identify threats to survival, to ignore the clear statistical data (not to mention first-hand experience in many cases) regarding color and crime.

      I could care less about your silly judgments. Actions speak louder. Remember, I’m no more racist than you, when you avoid walking through high crime areas which are easily identifiable by the color of the people in them.

  5. Steve Williams August 4, 2013 at 4:03 am #

    I think there is still huge racial discrimination around the US. White people still does not want to be intimate with black people. There are thousands of examples like this one. They should understand, the color does not make a human being good or bad.