The Color of Imprisonment
Is the criminal justice system fair? The answer, it turns out, depends on whom you ask. A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 9 in 10 Black adults say Black Americans are treated less fairly than their white counterparts. Only about 61% of white adults agreed.
This disparity in perception exists almost across the board, on views around policing, sentencing, and parole.
The reason, experts say, is that the way we see the world is based largely on our experiences. And while there are exceptions, “the police act more as an oppressive force when dealing with Black people than in dealing with white people,” says Spencer Piston, assistant professor of political science at Boston University. “That gap in perceptions of racial disparities is borne out. It’s driven by that experience.”
In this episode of “Perception Gaps: Locked Up,” our reporters look at how the color of our skin affects our experiences – and views – of crime and punishment in America.
Note: This is Episode 2 of Season 2. To listen to the other episodes and sign up for the newsletter, please visit the “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” main page.
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Samantha Laine Perfas: Does the color of our skin affect our perception of the criminal justice system?
In 2019, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of adults across the country. They found that when they aske d white Americans if the criminal justice system treats Black people less fairly than white people, 61 percent agreed. But when they asked Black Americans the same question, 87 percent said the system was unfair.
In other words, there’s a significant disconnect in how white and Black Americans think the criminal justice system works.
That’s… a perception gap.
I’m Samantha Laine Perfas and this is "Perception Gaps: Locked Up" by The Christian Science Monitor.
Sam: Welcome back to Season 2 of the show. In our last episode, we took a big-picture look at the criminal justice system in this country. We learned about the history of incarceration and the impact it can have on families and communities. If you haven’t listened yet, we encourage you to go back and check it out. You can find all our episodes at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps.
Today, we’re talking about race.
The survey we mentioned at the top of the show offers a pretty clear picture of how differently white and Black Americans perceive the criminal justice system. And that disparity exists almost across the board, from policing to parole to sentencing.
For example, Pew also found that Black adults are about five times as likely as white adults to say that they were stopped by police because of the color of their skin. Black Americans also tend to be more worried about gun violence and violent crime than white Americans. And a majority of Black Americans, 77%, said that minorities are more likely than white people to get sentenced to death for a similar crime. Less than half of white respondents agreed.
How is it possible for Americans to view what should be a shared, national reality so differently? Why does the gap exist so persistently along racial lines? And how do we even begin to bridge it?
Christopher Scott: Basically I was a dad of two kids. They were 4 and 5 at the time. And also my girlfriend lived with us. We were a ready-made family. I was just trying to be the best dad I could be to my kids, and show them a better way than I had because I had it kind of rough growing up. And I didn’t want my kids to go through that same struggle.
Sam: This is Christopher Scott. He served nearly 13 years in prison for capital murder. In 2009, he was proven innocent of the crime and released. He now runs the House of Renewed Hope, a nonprofit that helps exonerate other people who were falsely convicted.
We reached out to Chris because his experience is both extreme and representative. It’s not an everyday experience to spend more than a decade behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit. But wrongful conviction is a space in criminal justice where the racial divide is especially stark. One study published in 2017 found that exonerations involving Black Americans made up 47% of the cases in the National Registry of Exonerations.
Chris’s story starts in Dallas in 1997, with a phone call from a man named Claude Simmons.
Chris: Claude Simmons had a drug addiction. And he always wanted to talk to me about how he could get off the drugs or try to change his life around because Claude was a good guy, he just had a drug addiction. And the night he called me to come see him ... I didn’t want him to harm himself or harm someone else because he was reaching out for help and nobody was listening to him.
Sam: So, Chris decided to go see Claude. When he got to the neighborhood:
Chris: It’s like I drove right into a murder scene. As I’m coming down the street, I see a lot of cops.
Sam: In fact, there had been a home invasion and murder in the neighborhood earlier that night. The police scanner had put out a description of the suspects.
Chris: Two African American men, one tall, one short, dark complected, with low haircuts.
Sam: Chris went on to pick up Claude. They got sodas at a nearby 7/11 and then went back to Claude’s house. Then the phone rang.
Chris: I answered the phone and I told Claude: “Hey, it’s the police. What do you want me to do?”
Sam: Claude was wary, and told Chris to hang up. But when the police called again, the two men agreed to let them in.
Chris: And as soon as the door opens, cops run in. It’s about seven to eight, maybe nine officers run in the house. All their guns are drawn on me. So they escort us out of the house and lay us on the ground. They immediately start picking out random African American men that fit the description. I’m like, what are they doing? Now I’m not knowing what’s going on, or why they feel like I’ve committed a crime. So now I’m puzzled. So I follow their instructions.
Sam: At this point, we asked Chris if he felt he had been profiled by the police that night.
Chris: Oh, for sure. Because when you think about it, the description that came over the police scanner, you’re describing the majority of the African American men in the country. That’s what it was, profiling, because I did not look like the guy. I was 25, 26 at the time and that guy was like, 40. White people don’t get profiled like that.
Sam: We want to take a moment to let that sink in.
Chris was arrested, essentially, for being a tall Black man, with a dark complexion and a low haircut, in the wrong place at the wrong time. That winds up leading to some serious consequences for him, and we’ll hear more about those later. But the point here is that for many Black Americans, just being Black means you’re a suspect, regardless of who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done – if anything. And living that way can affect how people view the systems that are supposed to serve them.
Sam: Could you talk about how communities’ experience can shape their perceptions about major institutions?
Spencer Piston: There’s no question that experience plays a huge role in shaping these gaps. And I want to acknowledge we’re speaking in generalities here. Many, many black people have had positive experiences with the police, and many, many white people have been treated like absolute garbage by the police. But, yes, on balance, the police act more as an oppressive force when dealing with Black people than in dealing with white people. And that gap in perceptions of racial disparities is borne out. It’s driven by that experience.
My name’s Spencer Piston. I’m an assistant professor of political science at Boston University.
Sam: Spencer studies how attitudes about social groups affect public opinion and political behavior. We talked to him about why it can be so hard for white Americans to see where Black communities are coming from when they talk about structural racism affecting their day-to-day lives.
Spencer: A lot of white people have just never been to places like Ferguson. Ferguson is the one that’s talked about so often now, where it’s just so common to get arrested, fined, harassed.
They’ve just never even been there. So they have no idea what it’s like. There’s no way for them to observe it other than through these videos that get circulated via social media. And even those tend to show only the most egregious incidents, not the everyday patterns.
Sam: Sometimes, getting those egregious moments in front of the public can make a difference and lead to change. It was the bystander video showing the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer that led to worldwide protests against police brutality this spring and summer. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s also drew a lot of power from two very public incidents of violence against Black Americans:
Paula McClain: The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and his mother insisting that his casket be open, and Bull Connor in 1963 with the fire hoses.
[CBS report: “... and the uniformed forces of Birmingham led by Commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor who says, ‘We were trying to be nice to them, but they won’t let us be.” + background audio of firehoses, barking, and people screaming.]
Both events are important because the nation observed those. In ‘63, this was the first time the three major networks were sending crews into the South. And so what you saw all across the country were the fire hoses and the dogs attacking children.
Sam: This is Paula D. McClain, professor of political science and dean of the Graduate School at Duke University. Paula studies race and politics, and she says she’s hopeful that the George Floyd video has sparked something like the civil rights movement.
But, like Spencer at Boston University, Paula says the racial disparities in the criminal justice system go much deeper than those most-publicized incidents. And it’s really hard for a person, or community, to internalize something they don’t experience.
Paula: And so something might happen, they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, that’s you know, that’s too bad.’ But it’s not something that they personally experienced.
Some years ago, I had a student, a white male student, who was pretty conservative but had a very close black male friend. And one time when he came to talk to me, he said that he had really kind of discounted the notion of Blacks being treated differently until he was in a store with his friend. And he realized his friend was being followed. And it kind of hit him that, you know, maybe there is something more going on.
And so what we find is that especially some middle-class whites, you know, who have different experiences, tend to disbelieve that these events are not just one offs, but they’re part of a larger system of injustice that permeates institutions.
Sam: To understand how deep the disparities go, we spoke with Yasser Payne, who studies sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. Yasser’s research looks at the different ways that American society was built for and around white communities – and as a result burdens and harms Black communities and other people of color.
Yasser Payne: There was a concept, structural violence theory. And what that is is when institutions and systems actively prevent people from meeting their basic needs. So it could be redlining. It could be bad schools. Right? It could be lack of employment. But there never was a time in American history where schools or jobs worked for Black communities. And that’s a great way to understand what’s going on, particularly in poor neighborhoods, here in Wilmington, Delaware, but around the country.
In our last study, we found nearly 70 percent of the men inside two neighborhoods were unemployed between the ages of 18 and 35. Seventy percent, right? So that’s employment. We look at the educational system. In one of those neighborhoods, we found 100 percent of the Black boys were dropping out, years on end. One hundred percent. Those areas – housing, reentry, jobs, and schools. Right? These are key areas that are playing a huge role with regard to the kinds of outcomes that we’re seeing.
Sam: By “outcomes,” Yasser means the disproportionate number of Black Americans who wind up behind bars. A 2020 report from Pew Research found that while only about 12% of the U.S. population is Black, Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of white Americans. In 2016, more than half of the prison population was Black in 12 states. Maryland, whose prison population is 72 percent Black, tops the nation.
And it’s not only because Black communities are poorer, with less access to jobs and education, and so more exposed to crime and violence. Black Americans are routinely punished more harshly than white Americans for similar crimes.
Jess Row: My friend, who is a wealthy, very wealthy white guy from a very privileged family in Massachusetts, he was caught carrying in his car, a very large amount of cocaine. And he could have been sent to jail for the rest of his life. And he served no jail time at all.
Sam: This is Jess Row, a writer whose most recent book explores how white authors, in their fiction, often segregate their white characters from people of color – just like in real life. Jess’s story about his friend, and his realization that a Black person would have likely had a very different experience, was one of the many reasons he decided to dive into this issue.
Jess: White people have never been taught to worry about the lack of the presence of people of color in their lives. Most white Americans live in overwhelmingly segregated spaces. And then they’re never aware of the fact that it’s actually damaging to them to live in a monoracial environment, because it’s damaging to their imaginations. And a lot of that just arises from the fact that many white Americans don’t have long-standing, productive, fulfilling relationships with people of color.
Sam: Jess says that’s why it’s hard for many white people to believe that Black Americans are regularly treated with suspicion and force in a way that white Americans don’t experience.
For example, Black and white Americans use marijuana at similar rates, and yet Black Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in every state, even states where it’s legal. This is true for other drugs as well.
Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have devastating effects on communities, the disparities are becoming even more obvious. Here’s Yasser Payne again, from the University of Delaware.
Yasser: Definitely the pandemic reveals what already was there. When you go inside these neighborhoods, you still see extreme poverty. You see a lot of people out on the street corners, walking around in the communities. And sometimes the narrative is framed that these folk are irresponsible, or whatever. And no. These folk are poor. The economy inside these neighborhoods, which was already fragile, is now – it’s become even more fragile.
Sam: Yasser says all these different factors serve to maintain a structure of continuous disadvantage and prejudice against Black Americans. He points to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” as a book that lays out how this oppression is seen clearly in our criminal justice system.
Yasser: This may sound crude, but we have a bottom caste. And for the most part, Black Americans – there are other members or other groups – but Black Americans, particularly those descended from the slave South, that is the role for the larger group, right? For the last four to five hundred years.
To be an effective police officer, right, or to be seen or recognized as an effective judge. Or a politician. You must demonstrate, at least rhetorically, that you are going to protect your constituents. And the boogeyman, you know, at least in this society, has become that lone, low-income, out of control, wily, young, you know, black male.
Well, we’re just finding that judges are imperfect folk, or the criminal justice system is an imperfect system, that is poised to respond in the most vicious way possible to the boogey man that sits inside our imagination.
Sam: Chris Scott, the man falsely imprisoned for murder, understands that viciousness better than most. When we left off on his story, Chris had just been arrested outside his friend Claude’s house. After spending the spring and summer in jail pre-trial, determined to prove his innocence, he found himself in court, at the mercy of the system Yasser was just talking about. Chris’s jury was all white, his judge was white, his prosecutor was white, and his own attorney was white. There was still no physical evidence tying him to the murder.
Chris: Four hours later, I was convicted of capital murder. They deliberated over me for about an hour and came back with a guilty verdict. And that was it. And the judge asked me, Did I have anything to say? I told him, you know, “You convicted the wrong guy. I didn’t commit this crime. But I do thank you for sparing my life. And one day I’m going to come back and fight for my freedom.”
Sam: One of the things you mentioned is that both when you were arrested and during your trial and conviction, it was really clear that your race played a role in a lot of the decisions made by the powers that be. So I’m curious if you could talk a little bit more about what you emotionally went through during that process?
Chris: I was angry. I was confused. I was upset. Because growing up, as a kid, my mom told us to respect authority figures. Mainly cops, teachers, doctors, lawyers, anybody of the professional field. And when I got falsely arrested, I thought to myself, like: These are the same people my mom raised me to respect, but now? Look what’s happening to me now.
You know the system has always been in biased form to African American people because they are not prosecuting us as individuals. They’re really doing it because of the color of our skin. Because it feels like it would be easier to convict an African American person. Because why? He’s in a rough community. He doesn’t have enough money to pay for sufficient counsel, and 9 times out of 10, we can make these individuals plea out, because they’re not going to want to go to trial. And they feel like, It’s just another African American life that we are throwing away that it doesn’t mean anything.
Sam: About a decade into Chris’s sentence, a group of law students at the University of Texas at Arlington proved that two other men had committed the murder for which Chris had been convicted. And then, in late 2009, Chris sat through and passed a six-hour polygraph test, was declared innocent, and set free.
Chris: Our criminal justice system is racist. It’s flawed. I see it all day. So yes, it’s a problem with the system. They systematically, they’re still judging us not by our character, but by the context of our skin color.
Sam: So far, we’ve tried to explore how differences in experience can lead to gaps in perception. But experience is just one part of why it can be difficult for white folks to acknowledge – much less do something about – racial disparities and racism, especially within the criminal justice system. The other challenge is motivation. Here’s Spencer Piston again; he’s the political scientist at Boston University.
Spencer: A lot of white people don’t want to acknowledge that they benefit from racial oppression. In fact, many white people themselves will use the police as a tool of social control. A lot of folks now are talking about this birdwatching incident where a Black guy’s out birdwatching, a white woman is out breaking the law by having her dog off leash. He confronts her about it. She threatens to call the police and to say she’s being threatened by an African-American man.
[Audio of exchange of the incident between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper]
Sam: He’s referring to the incident in May of this year when Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper – no relation – while he filmed their confrontation on his phone. The video went viral, and led to intense discussions about the history of white people, privilege, and racism.
Spencer: So I don’t know what fact you could give that woman that would then tell her, Oh, there’s structural racism in this country. She’s motivated to use the police to protect her racial privilege, not motivated to learn about structural racism in order to dismantle it.
Sam: So if you are a white American listening to this podcast, what are some things that – or questions that it might be helpful to ask yourself to sort of prompt some of that reflection?
Paula: I think, and this is as a Black female, that those are questions white Americans need to ask themselves.
Sam: That’s Paula McClain again, the political science professor at Duke. I asked her and Spencer the same question.
Paula: Don’t turn to your Black friends and say, ‘What’s the answer?’ This has got to be a self reflection. I mean, there’s so many books and things out there to read, you know, about the history, about white racial resentment. People need to do this for themselves. They cannot assume that communities of color are going to do it for them. And that’s hard. Right? That requires you to be introspective and reflective and really want to change. So that’s going to be a hard thing to do.
Spencer: As a professor, I love reflection. And I think it’s very important. But I think the ratio of reflection to action is much too low among many well-meaning white people who spend a lot of time on social media, a lot of time reading the news, a lot of time talking to each other and other white people about how bad it all is and doing actually very, very little.
I just cannot imagine, and I doubt that many white listeners to this podcast can imagine what it’s like to fear socializing with friends in public without risking being locked up, walking down the street, without risking being surveilled. That is a life I probably never will imagine. But I don’t need to have perfect knowledge and a perfectly developed sense of empathy and a perfect imagination in order to do that.
I think you can learn a lot and be prompted to reflect more through action.
Sam: Spencer’s point seems so simple – and yet it is so difficult to grasp. For me, it comes down to a willingness to be uncomfortable. As a white woman, am I willing to step into an arena knowing that I will probably mess up and say the wrong thing? Am I willing to commit to reflecting on and learning from those mistakes so that I grow in my ability to take action against racism? Or am I going to be defensive and say, ‘I’ve done my part,’ or ‘it’s too much,’ or ‘this isn’t my fault’?
Jess Row, the writer we heard from earlier, interviewed a bunch of different white people for his book of essays on whiteness. And he started to see a kind of pattern in their conversations.
Jess: Oftentimes I get very similar sort of canned responses having to do with certain sort of defensive tropes that you hear all the time from white people who are uncomfortable with talking about race.
Sam: What are examples of some of those tropes? What are things that you often hear?
Jess: One of the tropes that really stands out to me is the story that they have to tell about the one time that they tried to do something anti-racist and failed. And you know, it could be a story about how they tried to launch a diversity initiative at work or at their kid’s school. Or they tried to hire a minority-owned contractor. It’s usually one story and it always ends badly. So that, you know, that trope of like, ‘I’ve tried and failed to be a good white person,’ is very common.
Often the feeling that I get is a feeling of helplessness. You know, ‘I don’t know what to do. Why is there so much violence and hatred in the world?’ That kind of response. Which is really a way of saying, you know, racism and violence and all these bad things have nothing to do with me. And I run into that response all the time.
Sam: As a white person, I recognize that it’s easier for me to step out of that space when it becomes too much or I get overwhelmed. And that’s a privilege that many Black Americans don’t have.
There are some signs that things are changing. In the wake of the protests against the killing of George Floyd, polls showed that a majority of Americans across racial and ethnic lines support the ideas expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Within the criminal justice system specifically, some research shows that racial disparities are declining. We called Thaddeus Johnson, who both co-authored a report on the subject and has personal experience in law enforcement.
Thaddeus Johnson: I’m from Memphis, and Memphis is a predominantly black city. And I’m a former officer, I’m a black man. I guess I kind of got fed up at some point. And I made an arrest, and I was talking to my wife, and I was like, You know, everyone I arrested looked like me, or had a similar background that I had. So realizing that crime is more of a symptom of a broader problem.
Sam: Thaddeus left his police job to study criminology at Georgia State University, where he’s now an assistant professor in the department. He’s also a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice think tank. I asked if his experience as an officer inspired his course of study.
Thaddeus: People always ask me, ‘Why did you quit law enforcement?’ One thing is the change I wanted to make, I couldn’t do it as an actual officer. And I believe my background guides me and the questions I ask or the answers I try to come up with.
Sam: Thaddeus focused his studies on racial disparities inside prisons. Specifically, he looked at whether or not racial representation in state prisons had changed over time.
Thaddeus: And what we found was that since 2000, this period from 2000 to 2016, the imprisonment rate as well as the racial disparities – the Black to white racial disparity – dropped over that time for all crime types.
Sam: This is the first time that we’ve ever seen the Black and white racial disparity shrink – and for that reason, the report on the color of America’s state prisons made headlines when it came out in 2019.
But Thaddeus wants people to look beyond this one metric. For example, his findings show that while the rate at which Black people are being locked up is going down, the Black prison population is still really large. Sentencing lengths are one major reason. Thaddeus says he’s hoping his research can contribute to a fuller understanding of the way race and the criminal justice system intersect.
Sam: What would you want the public to take away from your findings?
Thaddeus: To understand that things are getting better, but disparities still exist. This is probably the most updated knowledge that we have over time looking at these disparities. And so now we have a better understanding of what’s shaping, or how the scale of imprisonment has changed, and also the color of imprisonment. So that’s one thing we really wanted to uncover – to give a more objective but also a more accurate view of what’s going on in our prisons.
I’m always reminded – my wife is a qualitative researcher, and I’m a quantitative researcher, so I look at the numbers. One thing she always says is, Never get caught up in realizing that these are people. You see a number for homicide, or you see a number for a person in prison. That’s not just a data point, it’s an actual person. I think that humanizes it, it causes you to invest more. It causes you to think bigger. What can my research really accomplish? How can this research really impact policy or help inform policymakers’ decisions?
Sam: I really liked what Thaddeus said: that statistics aren’t just abstract figures. They represent real people. People like Chris Scott, who after serving an unimaginably long sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, is now helping others fight false convictions.
And if people who have a more personal stake in this can continue to believe that things will change – that through thoughtful work they can find and build common ground – then surely we can too. And the sooner white Americans make this connection and commit to doing something about it, the sooner we’ll see progress in our country … as it turns away from racism and hopefully towards more equitable systems.
I want to end with something Paula McClain, the Duke University professor, told us about hope and change.
Paula: I have to have hope, because I have three grandsons who one day will be three young Black males. We have got to make a difference so that my three grandsons do not have to be concerned about being pulled over, about how, you know, they should view the police, that you want them to view it in a more positive sense as opposed to these individuals being the enemy. But you have to have hope because otherwise, what do you do? You can’t just live in despair. So for my three grandsons, I have to have hope.
I do think that people of goodwill, you know, people whose minds are open and are willing to look at what, in fact, might be happening, and to search kind of within themselves – out of that, and the commitment that people seem to have now about doing something, I think things are going to change. That maybe, just maybe, not that all problems are going to be solved, but maybe we’ll move in a better direction.
Sam: Thanks for listening, and we hope you’ll join us for future episodes. Our next episode will explore the space where immigration and criminal justice meet – for better or worse. If you’d like to stay in the loop, sign up for our newsletter at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps. We’ll include show notes, videos, additional articles, and behind the scenes takes from the series. Again, you can sign up for it at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps.
And if you want to read more about Christopher Scott and his work to exonerate others, you can find my colleague Henry Gass’s feature about him and The House of Renewed Hope at csmonitor.com/innocent.
This episode was produced and hosted by me, Samantha Laine Perfas. It was co-reported with Henry Gass and co-produced with Jessica Mendoza, edited by Clay Collins, Noelle Swan, Yvonne Zipp, and Dave Scott, with additional edits by Em Okrepkie, Jules Struck, Lindsey McGinnis, and Kelsey Evans. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt, with additional audio elements from the Library of Congress and the viral video posted by Melody Cooper on Twitter.
This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.