Mediating Perceptions of Race and Criminal Justice in America

Rhetorics of “law and order” have returned with a vengeance in the 2016 US Presidential Debate. Sowing the Seed is going to repost pieces from its Summer 2016 Reading Race and Criminality series in an attempt to deepen the discussion. Emily Soltys builds on Matthew Kuraska’s piece, to look at the role of media and language in discussing the racialization of crime in America. Soltys is also a student at Elizabethtown College, studying under critical criminologist Dr. Rita Shah.


Our lives are made up of our own interpretations of the events and situations that occur around us. Perceptions are sometimes developed based off of incomplete information. We don’t need the whole story in order to form our opinions. This is true of the criminal justice system.

Public perceptions of who commits the most crime do not line up with actual data. The Sentencing Project, which provides research and promotes justice system reform, states that racial views of crime are a driving force of outcomes in the criminal justice system. While the Sentencing Project lists various reasons for this, the media’s influence on these overestimations is perhaps the most significant factor.

race and media.jpg

Audiences hear incomplete, sometimes misrepresented accounts of various news stories. In general, the media seems to focus on crimes committed by minorities more than crimes committed by whites. [1]

The concept of unconscious racism also affects perceptions of the criminal justice system. This idea illustrates the deep inset hegemonic beliefs that have been ingrained in us since we were born. Harvard University developed the Implicit Bias test, which measures implicit associations with race, gender, sexuality, and other topics. But people can be vehemently against racism yet still hold prejudicial thoughts, ideologies, and tendencies. All the while, they can defend these views by citing racial disparities within incarceration— further solidifying the perception that people of color are more disposed to commit crime than whites.

This bias is expressed in the American public’s obsession with the language used to discuss race. Rather than focusing on the merits of the issue as a whole, Americans work to employ a linguistic “laissez-faire racism,” in which snuffing out negative words is of chief concern. For instance, claiming that minorities are in poverty because of their culture appears positive in tone despite its racist foundations.[2] Schlesinger describes this prejudice as a “kinder, gentler anti-black…”[3] And with this being an election year, the media is paying very close attention to all of the presidential candidates, just waiting for one of them to mess up on this account.

Recently, Bernie Sanders was widely admonished for a racist comment he made during one of his speeches. When asked about his racial blind spots, Sanders replied, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto — you don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”[4] This comment clearly displays the effects of unconscious racism. Bernie Sanders was playing the “good white person” and attempting to say that he doesn’t know what it is like being a member of a minority. Sanders tried to bring attention to a contentious socio-economic issue, but even in trying to be sensitive to this delicate topic, he appealed to a racial generalization to make his point.

The idea of being unconsciously racist should give us pause. According to Schlesinger, though our laws may be written as race-neutral, the criminal justice system applies them in a racialized way. And as much as the government tries to pass it off as a strange coincidence, it seems to be more likely that unconscious racism has a part to play in these policies. Reverend Jesse Jackson, a famous African American civil rights activist, said “there is nothing more painful than to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved…”[5] White peoples historically kidnapped and enslaved an entire race of people but instead of being afraid of white people, respectability politics is teaching minorities to be afraid of each other. Citing social psychologists and criminal justice experts, German Lopez of Vox notes,:

Racial bias isn’t necessarily about how a person views himself in terms of race, but how he views others in terms of race, particularly in different roles throughout his everyday life. And systemic racism, which has been part of the US since its founding, can corrupt anyone’s view of minorities in America.

People use their own views and ideas to develop perceptions of the crime, criminality, and the criminal justice system as a whole. These perceptions are formulated under the direction of false information and biases of other people. The racial disparities within the criminal justice system serve to solidify perceptions of Americans that people of color are more disposed to commit crime than whites. Our reality is based on our perceptions, but if our perceptions are ill-conceived, then our reality is flawed.

[1] T. L. Dixon and K. B. Maddox, “Skin Tone, Crime News, and Social Reality Judgments: Priming the Stereotype of the Dark and Dangerous Black Criminal,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35 (2005): 1555–1570.

[2] Sentencing Project, “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punishment Policies,” (2014)

[3] T. Schlesinger, “The Failure of Race Neutral Policies: How Mandatory Terms and Sentencing Enhancements Contribute to Mass Racialized Incarceration,” Crime & Delinquency 57.1 (2011): 56-81.

[4] N. Goodkind, “Bernie Sanders has more to learn about racial inequality: DeRay Mckesson,” Yahoo Finance. (2016),–deray-mckesson-194517781.html.

[5] G. Barak, P. Leighton, and A. Cotton, Class, Race, Gender, Crime: The Social Realities of Justice in America, Fourth Edition (Lanham: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015).

Emily Soltys-Headshot.jpgEmily Soltys is a Sociology-Anthropology and English double major at Elizabethtown College ’17. Follow her blog here.

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