UCLA faculty voice: Advocates of criminal justice reform must frame race carefully

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Luskin Dean Franklin Gilliam says statistics about racial disparities must be properly contextualized to be effective persuasive tools

Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. is the dean of UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, professor of public policy and political science and senior fellow at the FrameWorks Institute. This article appeared Aug. 20 in The Huffington Post.

Criminal justice experts routinely point out a set of facts to show that the system is in need of serious reform. They frequently cite things like: incarceration rates are at an all-time high and disproportionately higher for Latinos and African Americans; the U.S. is the world's leading jailer; and too many of those in prison are convicted of non-violent crimes. The operative assumption is that these facts will help convince the public that reforms are needed.

A much-touted recent study by Stanford psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt seriously calls this assumption into question. In a series of experiments, the authors report that, “... exposing people to extreme racial disparities in the prison population heightened their fear of crime and increased acceptance of the very policies that led to those disparities.” Hetey and Eberhardt conclude that “... bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities” is unlikely to increase support for progressive reform policies.

These findings are at once confirmatory, but also incomplete. The result is a misleading takeaway for criminal justice advocates.

Why is the Stanford study confirmatory?

First, it substantiates earlier research. In a series of experimental studies conducted by Stanford political psychologist Shanto Iyengar and myself in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we found that exposing white viewers to actual television newscasts featuring African Americans in the role of perpetrators significantly increased their beliefs that “bad people” cause crime and amplified their support for punitive policies such as the death penalty and “three strikes and you're out”.

Second, in a recent paper I wrote with Adam Simon for the FrameWorks Institute we found that participants in an experimental survey study who were exposed to racialized fact patterns (i.e., disproportionate minority incarceration rates) evidenced little to no significant effect on their criminal justice policy attitudes. While our results are a little different from the Stanford study, they do support the argument that using facts about racial disparities in the criminal justice system is not a very effective advocacy strategy.

Why is the Stanford study incomplete?

In short, it doesn't systematically consider the concept of framing. In the first instance, there is no such thing as an “unframed” fact. When people are confronted with a set of facts or numbers they instantly search for a frame to contextualize the data. If one is not present, people default to the most chronically accessible frame. Put differently, people use what is “top of mind”.

In a set of studies conducted with the FrameWorks Institute we discovered that the public's default frame when it comes to matters of race is characterized by a belief that racism is a thing of the past (for the most part), that government policies and laws have “leveled the playing field”, and that any disparities that exist are because some groups don't adhere to fundamental American values of hard work. In short, when people are confronted with unframed information about racial disparities, they quickly default to ways of thinking about race that are not supportive of reform policies and programs (i.e. blaming the individual; blaming the dysfunctional culture of “certain groups”).

The introduction of values plays an important role in influencing public opinion about criminal justice. In particular, when exposed the to the value of pragmatism (e.g., it just doesn't make good sense to keep building prisons and incarcerating people for non-violent offenses), people are much more likely to support a reform agenda. More to the point, the FrameWorks experimental studies show that you can productively inject facts about racial disparities into the conversation, but only when those facts are preceded by the orienting value of pragmatism. The data suggest that sequencing information in this way significantly increased a belief that incarceration is caused by systemic factors; that remediation should focus on systemic factors; and that racial disparities should be addressed. This is a much better way, we believe, to advocate for criminal justice reform.

Why is the takeaway from the Stanford study misleading?

Many advocates have contacted us wondering if this means that you can't talk about race in the context of crime. The important question isn't whether or not you can talk about race and crime, but rather how and in what order you talk about it. We have found that starting a conversation with the American public by essentially claiming the system is racist does, in fact, dampen support for progressive reforms. But, and this is an important finding, our research also shows that starting the conversation with the values that many Americans adhere to, and then pointing out racial disparities, is effective in garnering support for progressive reforms.

In a recent piece in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that, “... advocates might want to try different language (or a different approach) in their campaign to reform the criminal justice system.”

We believe we have identified a better strategy that allows advocates to both use facts and talk about race. Paying attention to values and order in criminal justice reform communications is an important framework for moving public will. By contrast, giving up on talking about race or facts because of the Stanford study would be a sad hijacking of criminal justice discourse in our country.

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