Public Opinion, Prison, and Politics – Black Crime Matters

September 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives have finally begun to emerge from their nearly fifty-year long infatuation with draconian prison sentences as the solution to the problems of crime and, especially, drugs. It’s as though America has just discovered that that property in Glengarry Glen Ross we’ve been making huge payments on all these years is mostly an undeveloped marsh. How did this happen?  Who were those persuasive salesman, the ones who lived by the ABC slogan, “Always be convicting”? And why did we believe them?

The standard answer from the left has been: racists and racism. Starting in the 60s, politicians used “crime” as a code word for “race.” After all, you couldn’t say that you were against Black people, but you could say that you were against crime and for “law and order.” The strategy worked but not just because of American racism but because of the riots and the rise in crime in Black urban areas, then called “the ghetto,” now “the hood.”  In the leftish view, the new laws – everything from mandatory sentences for a first offense to life-sentences for a third conviction – were basically good old American White-on-Black oppression. Whites were comfortable knowing that most of the people being sentence to long terms and occasionally death would be Black. Mass incarceration, in the title of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.”

New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973, were some of the first and harshest versions of the new look in criminal justice. Many other states took inspiration, and in the 1980s the Reagan administration’s launched federal war on drugs * – all with a predictable boom in prison populations. The increase was sharper for Black males. (Data from Pew here .)

But in Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, Michael Javen Fortner challenges the idea that the drug laws, and punitive policies in general, were a White regime foisted on Blacks. Black leaders in New York City – and the Black people they led – were, Fortner argues, a major force pushing for harsher laws.

The book is political history – how laws got made forty years ago. But it’s also relevant for the debate over the very recently arrived Black Lives Matter. Conservatives, in their reaction against Black Lives matter, often like to bring up the inconvenient fact of Black-on-Black crime. Here, for example, is Sean Hannity on Fox last month:

Don't we have to address the black on black crime numbers that, it's not cops. It's not white people. There are racists, everybody knows that, but the majority of deaths of young black males are coming from other young black males.

Fortner too argues that trying to explain criminal justice policy while ignoring crime
is like explaining Advil profits without mentioning headaches. In the 1970s, the highest rates of street crime were in urban Black neighborhoods. That’s still true, though those rates have decreased considerably in the last 25years. 

In 1982, noted penologist Richard Pryor offered his observations on the proportions of Blacks in the general population and in prison. He also speculated that the disparity in these proportions was related to crime and the desire of Black people like himself to be safer. (It’s Richard Pryor. Do I really need to put a trigger warning here about language, sex, and violence?)


But are Blacks really more punitive than Whites? Fortner has a lot of anecdotal evidence – editorials in Black newspapers saying things like,“I’m in favor of burning them alive.” I haven’t read the book (the release date was only two days ago), but according to the review by Marc Parry in The Chronicle , Fortner “cites a 1973 New York Times poll that found 71 percent of blacks supported life sentences without parole for drug dealers.”  I could not find that poll, but I did find a national Gallup poll from 1973 on the same question. Whites supported the drug laws 68-28%. Black support was less strong – 58-36%.

Other surveys too have found Blacks less punitive than Whites.  They have always been less supportive of the death penalty; except for the high-crime years of roughly 1985-2000, a majority have opposed capital punishment. As for other sentences, look at the GSS item “Courts”: “In general, do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?”

Some obvious points:
  • Attitudes about punishment have softened in the last 25 years, probably because of the great decrease in crime.
  • Blacks have always been less punitive than Whites.
  • In periods of high crime, Blacks were strongly in favor of harsher punishments. Even today among Blacks, those favoring harsher punishment are in the majority.

But what about the other option on this question?

While the White-Black gap on “Not Harshly Enough” has been consistent at about ten percentage points, in recent years far more Blacks have come to see sentences as too harsh. While Whites still favor harsher courts by nearly 8-to-1, among Blacks the ratio is only 2½-to-1. 

Perhaps these general attitudes help explain the differences over Black Lives Matter. The movement arose in response to several well-publicized killings of unarmed Black men by police. But even before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and others, a significant minority of Blacks in the US had come to feel that the punitive tactics of the criminal justice system were not making them safer and needed to be reversed.


Andrew Gelman said...

Guess who used to be okay with the death penalty?

Jay Livingston said...

Obviously, I missed your Monkey Cage post, nor was I aware that the B/W divergence in attitudes did not extend back infinitely. I was looking only at GSS data -- 1972 to present.

Pamela Oliver said...

Thanks for writing this. My impression from having done a lot of (as yet unpublished) work on these issues is that Black support for the Draconian policies mattered politically, especially in the big cities where Blacks had significant political presence, even as it is and was true that White support for Draconian policies was even higher. For example, Black imprisonment rose more under Black mayors than White mayors in major cities.

Jay Livingston said...

Pam, That's very interesting. I would think that the pathways to legislation are many and not easily traced from a starting point forty years past. The influence of city mayors on state legislatures and governors can vary greatly, as the current mayor-governor relationship in New York illustrates. Fortner's book may be an excellent history of the creation of the NY laws (I don't know -- I haven't read it, and I haven't read any reviews by political historians).

I came across other surprises when I was looking down various side tracks when I was putting this post together. For instance, it looks as though in the first years after the Rocky drug laws, the big increase ion NY prisons was among Whites, not Blacks.