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Lynchings and Contemporary Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks as Criminals

By Daniel P. Mears, Eric A. Stewart, Patricia Y. WarrenMiltonette O. Craig, and Ashley N. Arnio

For this study, we examined the idea that Whites who resided in areas where lynchings occurred would be more likely to view Blacks as criminals. We also wanted to investigate whether, more specifically, they would view Blacks as likely to commit crimes against Whites.

In so doing, we build on a growing body of scholarship that has examined the long-lasting effects of past lynchings on contemporary American society. Much of this work points to the notion that historical violence against Blacks has had repercussions that extend up to the present.

As we considered this idea, we took heed of research that has highlighted the salience of race in contemporary discussions about crime and punishment. Many studies have highlighted, for example, the dramatic increase in prisons nationally. Indeed, a large literature now has focused on understanding the causes and effects of what has come to be termed “mass incarceration.”

Race is central to accounts of mass incarceration or what some scholars term the “punitive turn” in corrections. Relative to their presence in the population, Blacks typically are overrepresented in arrest, conviction, probation, jail, prison, and parole statistics. Differences in offending may explain some of the disproportional representation of Blacks in the criminal justice system, but substantial concerns exist that they result in part from discrimination. Regardless of what drives the differences, however, public opinion research has drawn attention to the notion that Whites tend to equate race and criminality. From this perspective, to be Black is to be criminal, and to be a criminal is viewed as presumptively implying that the person is Black.

When we combined these two lines of work, it led us to hypothesize that one long-standing legacy of lynchings may be to shape contemporary Whites’ views not only about Blacks as criminals but also as a criminal threat to Whites. We also considered research that has underscored the ways that social and economic disadvantage and political conservatism have featured prominently in accounts of Whites’ views about crime and punishment. That led us to hypothesize that the “legacy” effect would be greater among Whites who lived in areas in America where socioeconomic disadvantage and political conservatism were greater.

Our analyses in fact support these hypotheses. For example, Whites from areas where lynchings occurred were more likely to view Blacks as criminal threats and to view Blacks as more likely to commit crimes against Whites. In addition, these effects were more pronounced among Whites residing in areas of greater socioeconomic disadvantage and in more politically conservative communities.

The findings suggest that the era of lynchings has continued to influence modern-day America. They point to another dimension that may shape public views and debates about crime and punishment. Lynchings, and the culture that they represented, may contribute to ways in which being Black and being criminal get conflated. Not least, they highlight the importance of understanding ways in which community context—the characteristics of the communities in which we all live—may influence how we see the world.

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