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February 28, 2021

"Prisons are getting Whiter. That’s one way mass incarceration might end."

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post commentary authored by Keith Humphreys and Ekow N. Yankah. Here are excerpts:

Research shows that many White Americans see incarceration as a “Black problem,” and the more they see it that way, the less willing they are to do anything about it.  Biden and others might surmount this resistance, however, by highlighting a surprising trend: White Americans have been filling jails and prisons at increasing rates in the 21st century. Reducing incarceration, reformers can credibly argue, will benefit Whites as much as Blacks....

Racial codings of social problems influence public attitudes through two basic processes.  The first is in-group favoritism, which is greater appreciation of and empathy for people we perceive as similar to ourselves.  Such favoritism increases willingness to help a stranger in distress, leave a big tip at a restaurant or grant a promotion at work, among many other kindnesses. In-group favoritism is not limited to race (we can be favorably disposed to someone over something as trivial as sharing a first name or a birthday), and people of all races are prone to it.  But race is clearly one of the many dimensions by which we judge similarity, so that as more White Americans understand that more Whites are behind bars, they may feel increased compassion toward prisoners and voice more support for policies to reduce incarceration.

The other process in play is more disturbing, because it implies an active attempt to harm others.  Sociologists Rachel Wetts and Robb Willer documented that, when told the income gap between White Americans and Black and Latino Americans was shrinking, Whites favored social welfare programs that they believed particularly helped other Whites. But they became less supportive of programs that they thought particularly helped minorities.  Wetts and Willer concluded that perceived threats to the racial hierarchy drive White opposition to helping Black Americans.  The same Whites who recoiled at a Black man rising to the presidency, for example, might oppose prison reforms (shorter sentences, better health care, early release for the sick and elderly) precisely because they believe that the beneficiaries will mainly be Black. Informing such people that prisoners are increasingly White could soften their hostility.

Persuading people to join the fight against mass incarceration because Whites stand to benefit is bound to repulse those already committed to the cause.  But because each state runs its own prison system and sets most criminal penalties, building a nationwide coalition is essential.  That can happen only by shifting the opinion of people who are not moved by — or indeed are even comforted by — the thought of prison populations being mostly Black. And exploding the idea that mass incarceration is only a “Black problem” may allow us to reimagine a broad range of other issues, such as the policing that helps feed it....

In the effort to control Black and Brown people through the criminal justice system, White Americans have shown a stunning willingness to tolerate a huge number of White prisoners as collateral damage.  And once such systems are built, they have a remarkable capacity for self-preservation; jail populations, for instance, have stayed constant even as crime has plummeted.  So we cannot say how well a strategy drawing attention to the Whitening trend will work. In his book “Dying of Whiteness,” physician Jonathan Metzl argues that White people’s racial resentment can lead them to cut off their nose to spite their face — opposing policies that would help them because they would help Black citizens, too. Indeed, numerous economists have concluded that America’s long history of hostility toward Black people has left it the sole advanced economy without some form of universal health care.  If some White Americans are willing to give up health care to keep their place in the racial hierarchy, perhaps they are willing to risk imprisonment as well.  Yet the reversal in rhetoric during the opioid crisis shows that entrenched policies can be changed.

What’s more, in a remarkable moment of convergence, libertarians, religious leaders and racial-justice advocates oppose mass incarceration for separate but overlapping reasons.  Were our country more just and less dismissive of Black pain, growing White incarceration would have no special weight in assessing the moral value of locking up more than 2 million of our fellow citizens.  Opponents of mass incarceration — including Biden — should continue to denounce racism within the criminal justice system.  But the president can also remind Americans that our racial fates are joined: All of us would benefit from the end of mass incarceration.

February 28, 2021 at 11:30 PM | Permalink


"Research shows that many White Americans see incarceration as a 'Black problem,'”

I can think of nothing more preposterous than this opening statement. I am white and 72 years old and have known thousands of people of all races and every walk of life from convicts to law enforcement, and have never ever ever ever ever heard anyone of any race say that incarceration was a black problem. This includes my early correspondence with Michelle Alexander. This article is just yet more anti-white propaganda.

Blacks commit far more crime in the United States than any other race in proportion to their percentage of the population and thus more blacks will be incarcerated. It has nothing to do with racism or whites. Yet these horrid articles keep raining down like evil rain. Why not write articles addressing the outsized number of blacks committing violent crimes and what can or should be done?

Posted by: restless94110 | Mar 1, 2021 4:36:16 AM

Not trying to provoke here, restless94110, but if many White Americans think about Blacks committing "far more crime" so that "more blacks will be incarcerated," doesn't that in turn make it more likely that many White Americans will see incarceration as more of a "Black problem"? (Also, though I did not reprint the links from the original WaPo piece, here is what the authors linked to in support of the sentence you quote: https://www.vox.com/2014/8/7/5978551/study-racism-criminal-justice-stop-and-frisk-reform-support)

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 1, 2021 9:44:44 AM

This is a great article and in response to restless94110, your comments about blacks committing more crimes and "that this is anti-white propaganda," are red flags as the phrase "anti-white" is used frequently in white nationalist social media pages, literature, etc.

The black incarceration rate has decreased by a third from 2000-2019. It's fallen 36% for black men and 60% for black women. In fact that ratio of black women to white women dropped from 6:1 to 1.7:1, this is due to the decrease in black female incarceration AND the increase in white female incarceration. There's no clear explanation for this decline, but there are multiple theories.

Posted by: anon | Mar 2, 2021 12:13:12 AM

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