Research shows the media disproportionately depict African-Americans as criminals, and whites as victims. Brooke speaks with Nazgol Ghandnoosh, research analyst at The Sentencing Project, about her study, "Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies," which details how media distortions feed our own implicit biases. (And you can take Harvard's Implicit Association Test yourself here.)
BROOKE: Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a research analyst for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal justice reform. She’s the author of a report called Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies. If the numbers from the Washington Post and the Guardian show that police shootings disproportionately affect African Americans, Ghandnoosh found that the coverage of those shootings displays racial bias, too.
GHANDNOOSH: A 2002 study found that people estimated that 40% of those who committed violent crimes who were African American when the actual rate was 29%. The general public overestimates black participation in crimes such as burglaries drug sales and juvenile crimes by somewhere between 20 to 30 percent. For Hispanics, Americans have estimated that about 27% of violent crime is committed by Hispanics. And that figure actually exceeds the proportion of Hispanics in the prison population, that's 17%.
BROOKE: So, why do we think that?
GHANDNOOSH: Because the media oversamples crime committed by people of color and over samples how often whites are the victims of crime committed by people of color. We know that most murders are committed by African Americans against African Americans, or by whites against whites. We also know that most murders committed by men and most victims are men. And yet for example one study that looked at a major Columbus Ohio newspaper found that the coverage in that paper tended to pick the most typical cases when selecting perpetrators, so most often black men, but tended to pick the least common victims. So, most often white women.
BROOKE: Only 10% of victims in actual crime reports were whites who had been victimized by blacks but these made up something like 42% of televised cases in a Los Angeles study?
GHANDNOOSH: These disparities have been found in major news outlets especially in television, so this does a double disservice to the general public because people get an exaggerated understanding of how much crime is committed by African Americans and they get an exaggerated sense of how likely they are to be victims of those crimes, and they don't have a clear understanding of how often African Americans are victims of these crimes.
BROOKE: You also found that the way people are depicted vary according to race.
GHANDNOOSH: Try to imagine a scene from the recent protests in Baltimore. You might think about that CVS, think about people looting, and then turn to the gang shooting in Texas.
BROOKE: The motorcycle gang.
GHANDNOOSH: Exactly. And one of the archetypical images from that event was a group of men sitting around you know waiting to be processed by police, some people on their phones, right? What happened in Texas very violent crime and what happened in Baltimore, large protests and yet very different types of impressions that we have of the level of calm and peace in those two areas, and the level of threat.
BROOKE: A black man who is a suspect is more likely to be shown in custody and less likely to be named?
GHANDNOOSH: What's significant about that is when you have a named white person as a suspect, the problem and the crime becomes more localized. You can associate it with that individual. When you have unnamed suspects, you know it tends to feed into this stereotype, you know the myth of a dangerous black man. These kinds of images contribute to that.
BROOKE: Can you give me any examples where police shootings are at the heart of the story? Is this research applicable to that kind of reporting?
GHANDNOOSH: When you think about all these recent incidents, the problem is, what we suspect to be the implicit bias among the officers. The fact that they are looking at this situation and assessing it to be a significant threat. And this is something that FBI director James Comey has talked about. The unconscious biases that everybody has.
BROOKE: Harvard has an implicit bias association test that you can take online. Millions of people have taken it. They've found that in a majority of people, there is an implicit bias even if you're convinced that you haven't got one. And it isn't even limited to whites: African Americans tend to hold a sense of fear or negativity when confronted with pictures of other African Americans.
GHANDNOOSH: That's right. And what's so important here is that most officers in general are not your sort of traditional bigots. So it's not about smoking out these bad guys, but it's about people like you and me, people who mean well and who intend well, but the life and death decisions in particular that they make is very much affected by the kinds of associations that they have, of people of color with criminality, with danger. So when the officer drove up to Tamir Rice and shot and killed him, someone had called in that there is a young man in the park carrying what seemed to be a weapon, it was in fact a toy gun. But the police officer and with very little attempt to assess what the situation was with the level of threat was, he shot and killed the young boy. Had the suspect been a young white boy in a park who is called in in that way, the officer might have been more likely to first test out the theory that he might have had a toy gun or that there might have been some other way to deescalate the situation.
BROOKE: Your research also found that whites tend to be more punitive when it comes to law enforcement - studies have drawn a direct link between the prevailing perceptions of black criminality that you describe and a lock em up and throw away the key mentality among white people.
GHANDNOOSH: One of the puzzles that I faced here was why is it that most victims of especially serious crime are African Americans , not whites. And yet, whites are more punitive than African Americans - why would that be? And part of the explanation is that because whites have this exaggerated understanding that crime is committed by people of color, they have less empathy. They're less interested in getting to the root causes of the crime and preventing it from happening again. And instead they're much more punitive. And so if you look at the research and if you look at surveys it shows that people of color are very concerned about crime. They're more concerned than whites. But they don't think that more punishment is the solution. Because there's so much emphasis on crime coverage and really so much little emphasis on crime policy coverage, when people think about Walter Scott running from the police in South Carolina because he had unpaid alimony payments for which he was liable to be arrested, a lot of white Americans, middle class folks wonder, why would you run, I would never run from the police. And so I think that this points to a gap in media coverage to educate the public not just about high profile crimes, but also what the consequences of our crime policies have been for these communities.
BROOKE: Nazgol, thank you very much.
GHANDNOOSH: It was a pleasure to talk to you.
BROOKE: Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a research analyst for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal justice reform.
Recent events suggest that, in the matter of police shootings, we may be approaching a turning point. All those people we’ve spoken to in the past year, people in the affected communities, always concluded by saying “we always knew this, but nothing ever changes.” But now it’s possible, just barely, but possible, that they may actually, finally, begin to detect a difference.
Real numbers - we haven’t had them before. And a growing awareness, that things are not always as the media portray them. At the very least, as we embark on another interminable campaign season, Hillary Clinton has called for a genuine accounting. It was never even a talking point before.
It may be wishful thinking, but visions of the dead, first on cellphone cameras, then on the internet, then on local news, then on the networks, ought to mean something. True, words have proved to be largely inadequate, but pictures, and data, and finally, federal grants to police departments, those can be mighty persuasive.