The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whites greatly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people

How do people's perceptions of who is committing a crime compare with reality? In a 2012 paper, researchers argued that black people commit a much lower share of crimes than whites assume.

The paper compares two surveys of people’s perceptions about violent crime with actual statistics. The “mean perceived percentage” figures are based on responses of white people in two telephone surveys: A random telephone survey of 1,575 adults conducted in Florida by the Research Network in 2005, and a nationally representative sample of 961 respondents directed by Oppenheimer Research in the summer of 2010. The “actual percentage” figures are drawn from various annual statistics published by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Justin Pickett, an assistant professor at the University at Albany and the lead author of the study, cautions that the values reported above should not be interpreted as accurate point estimates – the specific number that people say tends to vary a lot depending on how the survey question is asked. However, Pickett says the surveys do suggest that whites overestimate how much blacks are involved in serious street crime and, on average, believe that black people commit a larger proportion of serious street crime than whites do.

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