Is it smart to publicize how many people in prison are African-American?

August 22nd 2014

Adam Rotstein

It’s widely been noted that the United States has the largest per-capita prison population in the world. Inherent in these figures are serious racial implications: African Americans account for 12 percent of the overall population, but 40 percent of incarcerated people.  What’s worse—widely citing this racial disparity might actually aggravate the problem.

A new study from Psychologists at Stanford tried to gauge how sharing prison statistics might influence participants’ political attitudes around these issues. As a primer, one group of subjects saw a series of mug shots in which 25% of the convicts were African American. The other saw a series that was 45% African American.  When asked about their political views, the latter group overwhelmingly favored racially biased crime enforcement policies like “Stop and Frisk.”

What does this mean for the future of prison reform? Revealing that minorities are disproportionately represented in our prisons may only reinforce the belief that they are inherently more dangerous. People instinctively support stricter measures when in fact it is the policies themselves contributing to the problem. According the study’s author, “Reducing inequality takes more than simply presenting people with evidence of extreme inequality."