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Excerpted From: Francis T. Cullen, Leah C. Butler and Amanda Graham, Racial Attitudes and Criminal Justice Policy, 50 Crime and Justice 163 (2021) (Footnotes) (Full Document)


Author Photo   Francis T. Cullen, Leah C. Butler and Amanda GrahamFor the past decade, the growing salience of racial issues in the United States has unfolded largely in tandem with the growth of criminal justice reform movements. The most prominent racial issues are tied to criminal justice (e.g., officer-involved shootings of unarmed civilians), and racial justice is a consistent refrain among those calling for criminal justice reform. From the acquittal of the White vigilante who murdered Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, to the decision of a grand jury not to indict the White police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the release of camera footage showing police officers shooting Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Saint Paul, and countless others, the movement known by its rallying cry that “Black Lives Matter” has periodically dominated news coverage and public discourse since 2013.

In May 2020, a series of killings of Black people, including Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, culminated in global outrage, protests, and riots in response to a viral cellphone video recorded by a bystander that showed a White Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed Black man for more than eight minutes, even after he became unresponsive. News outlets soon reported that the man, George Floyd, had been pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Public demonstrations erupted around the world, with people of all races chanting and marching in the streets in protest of the American criminal justice system. Each time the killing of a Black person by a White police officer or vigilante reignites the public conversation about racism in the United States, a number of divergent responses resonate, and a meta-conversation--a response to the responses--materializes. Should we say “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”? Is it acceptable or deplorable for Black athletes to kneel in silent protest during the national anthem at a sporting event? New questions about Whiteness became part of the broader discourse. What is white privilege? What is white supremacy? Ultimately, each of these questions is aimed at understanding racial identity and the implications of in-group and out-group attitudes. No analysis of crime and social policy can ignore these racial dynamics.

Notably, social scientists have been working for decades to understand the public policy consequences of racial attitudes. In a democracy with competing parties, political partisanship and ideology would be expected to shape public policy preferences. Research shows, however, that the “will of the people” is influenced, often more strongly, by an illegitimate sentiment--White racial bias against Blacks documents that these sentiments have profound consequences in criminal justice. “A half dozen intertwined literatures on the psychology of race relations,” he observes, “show that insensitivity to the interests of black people became a theme of crime and drug control policy”. Of particular concern is that studies reveal that “whites have much harsher attitudes towards offenders and that racial animus and resentment are the strongest predictors of those attitudes”.

The concept of racial resentment originated in the social sciences--especially in political science and social psychology--and was imported into criminology by scholars studying public policy preferences about crime control. Somewhat remarkably, a single conceptualization and measurement of racial resentment proposed by Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders have guided research on the impact of this animus for 25 years. Within political science, their measure is included on major national surveys (e.g., American National Election Survey [ANES], Cooperative Congressional Election Survey [CCES]) and is a standard variable in almost all studies assessing the policy consequences of racial attitudes. Within criminology, their measure of racial resentment is similarly incorporated into studies of Whites' support for a range of criminal justice policies. If not included in a multivariate model, reviewers would criticize the analysis for omitted variable bias.

A key reason for the status of Kinder and Sanders's measure is that, with only intermittent exceptions, it is associated in empirical analyses significantly and robustly with almost all social and crime-related policy outcomes. Practical reasons for its use also exist. The racial resentment scale is parsimonious (four items), has high reliability and factor loadings, and is available in data sets. The use of this measure shows no signs of lessening in criminal justice or social science research. It thus will remain at the core of the study of racial attitudes for the foreseeable future.

Given its continued use, it is important for scholars to understand the origins, criticisms, and effects of the concept and its measurement. As we discuss below, scholars in the 1970s recognized that racial prejudice was no longer commonly expressed as a belief in the immutable inferiority of Black people to White people. Instead, racial prejudice had become more subtle and intertwined with core American values of individualism and self-sufficiency. In the last decades of the twentieth century, researchers developed numerous names for and definitions of the new forms of racism: symbolic racism, laissez-faire racism (Bobo, Kluegel, and Smith 1997), modern racism, subtle racism, and color-blind racism.

In their now-classic book Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, Kinder and Sanders opted for the term “racial resentment,” which at its core involves Whites' “resentment over blacks getting ahead unfairly.” Such individuals believe that Blacks receive advantages that they either do not need or that are unfair because others do not receive them and feel resentful toward Blacks for taking advantage of such unfair or unnecessary benefits. Kinder and Sander linked this “meaning” of racial resentment to its “measurement.” In doing so, they provided scholars with an invaluable methodological tool--a scale with strong statistical properties and strong predictive value. Their approach came to dominate research on racial attitudes in large part because of the utility of their scale.

Although Kinder and Sanders's scale promises to endure as a standard measure, important developments are underway in research on racial attitudes and public policy preferences. The study of racial resentment or “symbolic racism” emerged in the context of the critique of social welfare problems as a means of addressing racial inequality. In today's public discourse and political rhetoric, “welfare queen” is no longer a “dog-whistle” term; it has well-known racial connotations and would likely be quickly denounced as “racist” if used by a member of the political elite. More generally, it is questionable whether out-group racial attitudes today are expressed primarily as resentment based on the belief that Blacks take advantage of undeserved government benefits. The racial justice protests and counterprotests from 2013 to 2021 were not about affirmative action and the social welfare net. We return in the conclusion to the issue of the meaning of racial resentment two decades into the twenty-first century. This discussion has conceptual and measurement implications for future research on this racial attitude.

More significant is the emergence of two novel lines of research on racial attitudes. First, studies of White out-group attitudes invariably assess the influence of animus, perceived threat, or some other negative sentiment toward Blacks (or other out-groups). Racial resentment is the exemplar of this research. Recently, however, Chudy argued that out-group attitudes may also be positive. Her research shows that racial sympathy--which she defines as Whites' “distress over black suffering”--influences public opinion on social and criminal justice policy. The outpouring of Whites' concern over the killing of George Floyd, including participating in marches in the midst of a lethal pandemic, is one example of racial sympathy.

Second and more expansive, a growing body of research examines the political consequences of Whites' in-group racial attitudes--that is, not what Whites think about Blacks but what they think about themselves. Disquieting public displays of White in-group protest were seen in the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia, where videos captured men marching with tiki torches and chanting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us”, and in the notorious January 6, 2021, insurrection and attack on the US Capitol inspired by then-President Trump's admonition that “you'll never take our country back with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”. Scholars have documented a quieter but still consequential development, examining the extent to which Whites possess White identity, consciousness, and nationalist beliefs--that is, seeing Whites as having a racial identity, group interests, and a desire to keep the United States culturally and demographically White. These in-group sentiments are likely to become more salient as the United States becomes a majority-minority nation in which people of color outnumber Whites. Research shows that these White self-attitudes shape public preferences with regard to social and criminal justice policy .

Our aim in this essay is to take stock of the research on racial attitudes and criminal justice public policy opinions. Kinder and Sanders's work is of central importance, but it should not be viewed as sacrosanct. Changes in the nation's evolving social context inspire novel ways of thinking about racial attitudes and create sociopolitical conditions in which newer concepts and measures might resonate and prove important. Still, racial resentment imposes an empirical challenge to all attitudinal newcomers. In the existing research, multivariate models control for a range of political and sociodemographic variables--and then introduce Kinder and Sanders's measure of racial resentment. For a new racial attitude to prove its worth (e.g., racial sympathy, White identity or nationalism), it must be shown that its addition to the analysis can explain added variation in the outcome variable (e.g., support for restrictive immigration policy, punitiveness) above and beyond racial resentment. It can be a daunting task to do so.

Our review of work on racial attitudes and criminal justice policy comes in four parts. Section I notes how the decline of traditional racism was superseded by the emergence of a more modern, symbolic form of prejudice. This line of inquiry prompted Kinder and Sanders to develop the concept of racial resentment. The analysis focuses on their classic measure of racial resentment--its origins, the criticism it has received, and its use in research showing its robust association with a variety of public policy preferences. Section II describes Chudy's insight that Whites' racial attitudes can be positive, as represented by her concept of racial sympathy. “By concentrating on racial prejudice,” Chudy  notes, “social scientists have developed only a partial understanding of how racial attitudes affect outcomes.” Although new, research has established racial sympathy as empirically distinct from racial resentment and as an attitude that influences policy opinions. Section III examines how the changing social context has stimulated interest in White in-group racial attitudes and their political consequences. Recent research revealing the impact of White identity/consciousness and nationalism on public policy opinion is presented. Section IV initially summarizes what is known empirically about relations between racial attitudes and criminal justice policy views. This analysis provides a context for assessing the future of research involving both racial resentment and Whites' in-group attitudes. Our central conclusion is that, given the racialized nature of crime and justice in America, racial attitudes will remain of enduring importance. Research will need to build on but move beyond the focus on racial resentment to consider the diverse ways in which Whites think about Blacks and think about themselves.

[. . .]

In his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the late author David Foster Wallace (2021) started his remarks with this humorous but meaningful story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says 'Morning boys. How's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?”’ Wallace implored the graduates to see their education as giving them the ability to be aware “of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us,” to be like a fish aware of the water in which it swims.

Political and other social scientists have long assumed that Whiteness is to White Americans as water is to a fish, something so omnipresent that they can live without noticing its existence . Research findings show, however, that a substantial minority of Whites hold a racial identity. This increasing awareness of Whiteness has been brought about by social and demographic changes through which Whites were suddenly confronted with the question “How's the water?” about the racial makeup of the country and their position in it. Beyond simply recognizing White as their racial in-group, some Whites have responded to the decline of White hegemony by embracing a political orientation seeking to preserve the Whiteness of the United States in terms of both racial demographics and cultural norms and values--an orientation known as white nationalism.

As with animus toward Blacks, these racial attitudes have political consequences. Research consistently shows that White in-group attitudes have independent but parallel effects to racial resentment, encouraging conservative political views and policies favored by the Republican Party. Most relevant, they are a source of punitive criminal justice policies, including toward vulnerable populations such as immigrants. As demographic changes unfold that transform the United States into a majority-minority nation, it is unclear whether White in-group attitudes will spread and become more intense. Former President Trump clearly incited out-group hostilities, and the Republican Party has yet to repudiate his nasty appeal to his base of White voters. Another possibility is that these social changes will ultimately lead to a more diverse and just society. Generational analysis shows that millennials voted disproportionately for Joe Biden in the 2020 election and, in criminal justice, endorse progressive correctional policies. Numbering nearly 80 million, millennials are an emerging political force. If Republican candidates face a more diverse electorate and lose at the polls, their celebration of Whiteness and demonization of Black protest seeking racial justice may diminish. Trumpism is now inciting White identity and racial animus, but its long-term political viability remains in question.

Perhaps of equal importance, Chudy reminds us that many Whites are concerned about Blacks' suffering--some to the point of feeling guilty about their racial advantage. Taken together with the emerging scholarship on White identity/consciousness and nationalism, her work suggests that a new generation in the study of racial attitudes has arrived. Whites have diverse views--toward out-groups and toward themselves as an in-group--and these attitudes will influence public policy preferences in the time ahead. Importantly, these developments in the social sciences--and in political science in particular--offer criminologists novel lines of inquiry in their study of how public opinion affects criminal justice policy.

Francis T. Cullen is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice and senior research associate at the University of Cincinnati.

Leah C. Butler is assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Amanda Graham is assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia Southern University.

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