Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University’s Dan Hopkins and George Washington University’s Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides interviews political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley about their book on how blacks and whites perceive the criminal justice system, and what it implies for Trayvon Martin’s death, George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the aftermath. The transcript below has been lightly edited. For past posts in the series, head here.

Q: Your recent book is Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites.  What are those separate realities? 

A: We found remarkable differences in how whites and blacks perceive the criminal justice system. Usually, when we speak about group differences—the “gender gap,” for example—the differences are in the range of 10 to 20 percent. But these differences pale in comparison to the gulf separating black and white perceptions of justice. Blacks are extraordinarily skeptical that the system can be fair, while whites see the system as essentially color blind.

Q: What’s an example of this gulf between blacks and whites?

A: We asked whether it’s a “serious problem” in their community that police “stop and question blacks far more often than whites” or that police “care more about crimes against whites than minorities.” On average, 70 percent of blacks, but only 17 percent of whites, considered these serious problems. And the courts were not immune from such skepticism, either: while about 25 percent of whites disagreed with the statement that the “courts give all a fair trial,” more than 60 percent of African Americans disagreed. Repeatedly, using every possible barometer, we found that blacks doubted the fairness of the justice system much more than whites.

Q: Why do blacks and whites have such different views of the criminal justice system?

Much of the difference comes down to either personal or vicarious experiences that people have with police and the courts. We found that African Americans, especially younger black men, were far more likely than whites to report being treated unfairly by the police because of their race. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll found that one of every four black men under age 35 said that the police have treated them unfairly during the last 30 days.  Little has changed since our survey. And these contacts do not have to be personal. In a recent study we conducted with Jeffery Mondak, we found that the distrust felt by many blacks is compounded by their vicarious experiences.  Many of their black acquaintances have also had similar negative encounters with the law.

Q: Are there factors that matter beyond personal or vicarious experiences?

A: So much of an individual’s judgment of the justice system comes down to perceived process. When African Americans see the enormous overrepresentation of blacks in correctional facilities, they assume there has been blatant procedural injustice—injustice due to prevalent biases in apprehensions, arrests, trials, sentencing, laws, and more. In his remarks Friday about the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, President Obama himself described this view: “The African-American community is...knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”

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.

Q: What consequences do those views have?

A: These separate realities are consequential in several important ways. First, when blacks are cynical and whites are sanguine about the justice system, they tend to interpret the behaviors of agents of the system (such as police officers and judges) through these lenses, leading to what might be a perpetual spiraling effect. In one study, we gave individuals a chance to explain the behaviors of police officers in different scenarios—for example, whether the police department could conduct a fair and thorough investigation into charges of police brutality. In one scenario, the brutality victim was described as white, and in the other scenario he was described as black.

Blacks believed that the police could conduct a fair investigation into brutality charges—but only if the victim of the brutality was white. If he was black, black respondents doubted that the police could be even remotely fair. To whites, however, the race of the victim was irrelevant. They tended to believe the police department could do its job fairly regardless of whether the victim of brutality was white or black.

In another scenario, we described a police search and arrest of two men, identified as either white or black, who were walking by a house “where the police know that drugs are being sold.” Again, when the two men were identified as black, African Americans were extremely skeptical about the circumstances surrounding the police search and were much more likely to think the police planted the drugs on the men. By contrast, whites trusted the police because they think the system is fair and color blind. Thus, in both the police brutality and the racial profiling scenarios, when either the victim or the suspects were identified as black, African American respondents reacted with great skepticism, whereas whites appeared to form their impressions in a racial vacuum, as if unaware of the many sources of injustice that blacks face on a regular basis.

President Obama talked about this discrepancy as well: “And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” In these words, the president summarized the views of many African Americans that the justice system is not a level playing field.

Q: What are the consequences of these separate realities for opinions about how criminals could or should be punished?

A: The separate realities of whites and blacks affect those opinions too. Whites are significantly more likely than blacks to support capital punishment, three-strikes laws, and spending money building more prisons (rather than funding antipoverty programs) to prevent crime. Because blacks do not trust the justice system, they do not believe that punishment will be handed out fairly. But because whites do believe the system is fair and because they are more likely to hold blacks personally responsible for the crimes for which they are accused, they support considerably more punitive policies.

Given the pervasive cynicism and distrust among so many African Americans, as well as the belief in the integrity of the fairness of the justice system so prevalent among many whites, it was almost inevitable that responses to the Zimmerman acquittal would be racially polarized. Surveys have already documented far less support for, and far more disappointment with, the verdict among blacks than among whites.

In a recent YouGov poll 75 percent of black respondents said that they would have found Zimmerman guilty of a crime—39 percent said guilty of manslaughter, while 36 percent said guilty of murder. Among white respondents, only 34 percent would have found him guilty of one of the two crimes.  The dominant emotions expressed by black Americans over the verdict were disappointment (53 percent) and anger (25 percent), whereas whites tended to say that they were pleased (25 percent) and relieved (21 percent) as well as disappointed (23 percent).

Q: What do the book’s findings tell us about the broader impact on public attitudes of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman? 

A: Social scientists have uncovered an avalanche of evidence documenting whites’ stereotypes of blacks as violent and criminal. Social psychologists conducting controlled lab experiments, for example, have demonstrated that merely thinking briefly about blacks can lead people, including police officers, to evaluate ambiguous behavior as aggressive, to miscategorize harmless objects as weapons, to shoot quickly and, at times, inappropriately, and to endorse harsh treatment of a black (versus a white) suspect. And the association between race and crime is not strong, but also outside people’s awareness and control to some extent (see, for example, research here, here; and here).

The Trayvon Martin case demonstrates how the association between race and violence in the minds of many non-blacks is a recipe for tragic misperception and a failure to correct, or even to recognize, how stereotypes often lead to a series of faulty decisions and catastrophic errors.

If Trayvon Martin had been white it would be harder to make sense of the events surrounding the 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.

From where we sit, which admittedly is far removed from the scene of the crime or the trial, the sequence of events should be informed by our knowledge of how racial stereotypes can bias judgments and rationalize decisions.

Q: Are there other examples from your research of how those stereotypes may operate?

A: In a series of survey experiments we found that when whites with negative stereotypes of African Americans were asked about black (versus white) perpetrators, they were much more likely to judge blacks as guilty of the alleged crimes, assume blacks would commit more crimes in the future, and favor much harsher punishments for black than white suspects.

In another survey experiment, we manipulated race in a more subtle way: with a single phrase, “inner city,” that carries strong racial connotations. A random half of white respondents was asked about spending money for prisons (versus anti-poverty programs) to lock up “violent criminals,” while the other half was asked about “violent inner city criminals.”  As expected, whites’ racial stereotypes were much more important in boosting support for prisons to lock up criminals in the inner city.

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.

Q: If we were to try to make “separate realities” into “one reality,” how would we do it? Are there ways that black-white differences in perceptions of the criminal justice system could be mitigated? 

A: 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. One obstacle to educating whites is segregation within neighborhoods and social networks. Our recent study with Jeffery Mondak found that while whites’ (mostly white) acquaintances added to their generally positive experiences with the justice system, blacks’ (mostly black) acquaintances reinforced their generally negative experiences with the justice system.

Can we create “one reality” by dramatically reducing blacks’ experiences with unfair treatment in the justice system?  To do so, whites would have to be convinced that the justice system is discriminatory and we know that whites are extremely resistant to such arguments. In another study, we set up survey experiments where we randomly presented white and black respondents with different arguments against the death penalty and three-strikes laws to see what effect the arguments had on their opinions of such policies.

The major finding of the experiments is still shocking. When whites were presented with an argument against the death penalty or three strikes that emphasized the racial bias of the policy, they became more (not less) supportive of capital punishment and three strikes laws. The political lesson of the experiment is clear: confronting racial injustice head-on would be risky for elected officials because most whites do not believe that the justice system is racially biased.

There is hope, however. In a more recent (unpublished) study, for example, we found strong evidence that many younger Latinos in Washington State empathized with the discriminatory experiences of blacks because they had been subjected to profiling and unfair treatment after increased enforcement of immigration laws. In addition, 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. Incremental change over time is thus possible, and even likely, despite setbacks in the short term.

There is also hope because financially strapped states are seeking more effective ways to increase public safety than lengthening prison terms for non-violent drug crimes, a policy responsible for the massive expansion of prison populations in the 1980s and 1990s (see this Pew Report). At the end of the 1990s, the “War on Drugs” targeted young African Americans with a huge disparity (about 100 to 1) in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine. While the disparity remains, it has been reduced to about 18 to 1. In addition, several states are reforming sentencing and release laws, including reducing prison sentences to time served for nonviolent offenders. For the first time in years, there has been a small reduction in the percentage of the prison population that is African American (see this Sentencing Project report).

While much work lies ahead, there is the possibility that blacks and other minorities may begin to see greater procedural justice in our system, although such changes will take years, if not decades, to transpire.