Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002–2012

By Abigail Saguy, UCLA

Sexual harassment represents a massive problem for working women worldwide. A recent social media campaign has brought increased awareness to this fact. In late 2017—after three-dozen women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, or rape—millions of women posted “Me Too” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Taking inspiration from African American activist Tarana Burke—who, in 2007, started an offline “Me Too” campaign to let sex abuse survivors know that they were not alone—actress Alyssa Milano launched this online Me Too campaign to shift the focus from Weinstein to victims. She hoped this would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”[1] While some posted simply, “Me Too,” others provided wrenching detail about abuse they had sometimes never before shared publicly. In France, a similar social media campaign flourished, under the hashtag “balance ton porc,” loosely translated as “sq…

Comment: Making valid claims in social science research: A comment on Jenness and Calavita

By Tom Tyler, Yale Law School

I am writing to comment on several methodological issues raised by the article by Valerie Jenness and Kitty Calavita, entitled “It depends on the outcome”: Prisoners, grievances, and perceptions of justice”. I am pleased that the methodology blog for Law and Society Review has been created and provides a forum to discuss research design issues. I will address three aspects of the study: operationalization of the variables; statistical analysis; and inclusiveness of the literature review.

The Jenness/Calavita paper studies California prisons using data collected through interviews with prisoners. The paper says that it tests the perceptual procedural justice model, in particular there are frequent references to the Tyler model, in a prison setting. The study concludes that “prisoners privilege the actual outcome of disputes as their barometer of justice” showing “the dominance of substantive outcomes” (from the abstract)”.

I agree with Jenness and Cala…

A Response to Tyler

By Kitty Calavita and Valerie Jenness, University of California, Irvine

We appreciate Tom Tyler’s close read of our article, “It Depends on the Outcome’: Prisoners, Grievances, and Perceptions of Justice,” and his pinpointing of issues of concern to him. We would like to respond here to just a few points.

Most importantly, it is a mischaracterization to say, as Tyler does, that we argue “that perceptions of procedural justice do not matter in the prison context.” As we say in the abstract (“These findings do not refute the importance of procedural justice” [p. 41]) and throughout the paper (e.g., “Nor do we argue that procedural justice is not important to these prisoners” [p. 43]), procedural justice is important. It matters, both as a moral principle and as a concrete reality for people involuntarily interacting with the long arm of the state, whether in a police stop or in a prison cell. The prisoners we interviewed clearly want to be treated fairly and with respect; nevertheless,…