Political Behavior

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 419–439 | Cite as

Racial Discrimination, Fear of Crime, and Variability in Blacks’ Preferences for Punitive and Preventative Anti-crime Policies

  • Mark D. Ramirez
Original Paper


A growing body of research recognizes that people’s policy opinions are not simply positive or negative, but instead derive from a variety of positive and negative beliefs related to a political issue. This research expands this insight by explaining the variability in support for punitive anti-crime policies among black Americans. Data from a nationally representative survey of black Americans (n = 515) are used to show that a majority of blacks are conflicted between a strong desire to reduce crime and perceptions of widespread racial discrimination within the criminal justice system. Using a heteroskedastic item response theory model, I demonstrate that conflict between these beliefs results in far greater variability around their support for punitive, but not preventative policies. Both the conflict and variability of many black Americans’ preferences on punitive anti-crime policies complicates their ability to clearly voice their support for or opposition toward punitive policies and likely limits the ability of elected officials to represent members of this community.


Public opinion Punitive Crime Criminal justice 



Thanks to Kim Fridkin and the manuscript reviewers for many helpful comments on earlier drafts of this research. I would also like to thank Josh Thompson, Amanda Wintersieck, Babek Rezaee, and the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University for providing research assistance on the project.

Supplementary material

11109_2014_9285_MOESM1_ESM.docx (199 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 198 kb)


  1. Aladjem, T. K. (2008). The culture of vengeance and the fate of american justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alvarez, R. M., & Brehm, J. (1997). Are americans ambivalent towards racial policies? American Journal of Political Science, 41(2), 345–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alvarez, R. M., & Brehm, J. (2002). Hard choices, easy answers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Alvarez, R. M., & Franklin, C. H. (1994). Uncertainty and political perceptions. Journal of Politics, 56(3), 671–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Basinger, S. J., & Lavine, H. (2005). Ambivalence, information, and electoral choice. American Political Science Review, 99(2), 169–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blumstein, A. (1993). Racial disproportionality of US prison populations revisited. University of Colorado Law Review, 64(3), 743–760.Google Scholar
  7. Blumstein, A. (2001). Race and criminal justice. In N. Smelser, W. J. Wilson, & F. Mitchell (Eds.), America becoming: Racial trends and their consequences (II ed.). Washington: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bobo, L. D., & Johnson, D. (2004). A taste for punishment: Black and white Americans’ views on the death penalty and the war on drugs. Du Bois Review, 1(1), 151–180.Google Scholar
  9. Brooks, R. R. (2000). Fear and fairness in the city: Criminal enforcement and perceptions of fairness in minority communities. Southern California Law Review, 73(1), 1219–1274.Google Scholar
  10. Carr, P. J., Napolitano, L., & Keating, J. (2007). We never call the cops and here is why: A qualitative examination of legal cynicism in three Philadelphia neighborhoods. Criminology, 45(2), 445–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cashmore, E., & McLaughlin, E. (2013). Out of order? Policing black people. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Converse, P. E. (1964). The nature of belief systems in mass publics. In D. Apter (Ed.), Ideology and its discontents. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  13. Craig, S. C., Martinez, M. D., Kane, J. G., & Gainous, J. (2005). Core values, value conflict, and citizen’s ambivalence about gay rights. Political Research Quarterly, 58(1), 5–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Currie, E. (2013). Crime and punishment in America. New York: Picador.Google Scholar
  15. DiIulio, J. J. (1994). The question of black crime. The Public Interest, 117(1), 3–32.Google Scholar
  16. Feldman, S. (1989). Measuring issue preferences: The problem of response instability. Political Analysis, 1(1), 25–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Feldman, S., & Huddy, L. (2005). Racial resentment and white opposition to race-conscious programs: Principles or prejudice? American Journal of Political Science, 49(1), 168–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Feldman, S., & Zaller, J. (1992). The political culture of ambivalence: Ideological responses to the welfare state. American Journal of Political Science, 36(1), 268–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gabel, M. J. (1998). Economic integration and mass politics: market liberalization and public attitudes in the European Union. American Journal of Political Science, 42(3), 936–953.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Garland, David. (2010). Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Gelman, A., Fagan, J., & Kiss, A. (2007). An analysis of the New York city Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias”. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 102(479), 813–823.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gilens, M. (2001). Political ignorance and collective policy preferences. American Political Science Review, 95(2), 379–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grant, J. T., & Rudolph, T. J. (2003). Value conflict, group affect, and the issue of campaign finance. American Journal of Political Science, 47(3), 453–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hagan, J., & Albonetti, C. (1982). Race, class, and the perception of criminal injustice. American Journal of Sociology, 88(2), 329–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jaeger, M. M. (2009). United but divided: Welfare regimes and the level and variance in public support for redistribution. European Sociological Review, 25(6), 723–737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Johnson, D. (2007). Crime salience, perceived racial bias, and black’s punitive attitudes. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 4(4), 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Johnson, D. (2008). Racial prejudice, perceived injustice, and the black–white gap in punitive attitudes. Journal of Criminal Justice, 36(2), 198–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Johnson, R., & Raphael, S. (2012). How much crime reduction does the marginal prisoner buy? Journal of Law and Economics, 55(2), 275–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Krosnick, J. A., & Petty, R. E. (1995). Attitude strength: An overview. In R. E. Petty & J. A. Krosnick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedants and consequences. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  31. Lord, F. M. (1980). Applications of item response theory to practical testing problems. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  32. Loury, G. (1996). The impossible dilemma. The New Republic, 214(1), 21–25.Google Scholar
  33. McDonald, R. P. (1999). Test theory: A unified treatment. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  34. Meares, T. L. (1997). Charting race and class differences toward drug legalization and law enforcement: Lessons for federal criminal law. Buffalo Criminal Law Review, 1(1), 134–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Meares, T. L., & Kahan, D. M. (1998). Law and (Norms of) order in the inner city. Law & Society Review, 32(4), 805–838.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Nering, M. L., & Ostini, R. (2010). Handboook of polytomous item response theory models. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Nicholson-Crotty, Sean, Peterson, D. A. M., & Ramirez, M. D. (2009). Dynamic representation(s): Federal criminal justice policy and an alternative dimension of policy mood. Political Behavior, 31(4), 629–655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Peffley, M., & Hurwitz, J. (2007). Persuasion and resistance: Race and the death penalty in America. American Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 996–1012.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Peffley, M., & Hurwitz, J. (2010). Justice in america: The separate realities of blacks and whites. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Pickett, Justin T., Mancini, Christina, & Mears, Daniel P. (2013). Vulnerable victims, monstrous offenders, and unmanageable risk: Explaining public opinion on the social control of sex crime. Criminology, 51(3), 729–759.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rabe-Hesketh, S., & Skrondal, A. (2008). Multilevel and longitudinal modeling using stata. College Station: Stata Press.Google Scholar
  42. Ramirez, M. D. (2013). Punitive sentiment. Criminology, 51(2), 329–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Ramirez, Mark D. (2014). Complex choices: African Americans and the death penalty. Race and Justice, 4(2), 75–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Skogan, W. G. (1990). Disorder and decline: Crime and the spiral of decay in American neighborhoods. New York: MacMillian.Google Scholar
  45. Steenbergen, M. R., & Brewer, P. R. (2000). The not-so ambivalent public: Policy attitudes in the political culture of ambivalence. In W. E. Saris & P. M. Sniderman (Eds.), The issue of belief: Essays in the intersection of non-attitudes and attitude change. Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  46. Thompson, M. M., Zanna, M. P., & Griffin, D. W. (1995). Let’s not be indifferent about (attitudinal) ambivalence. In R. E. Petty & J. A. Krosnick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedants and consequences. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  47. Tonry, M. (1995). Malign neglect—Race, crime, and punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Tonry, M., & Melewski, M. (2008). The malign effect of drug and crime control policies on black Americans. Crime and Justice, 37(1), 1–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Truman, Jennifer and Michael R. Rand. 2010. Criminal Victimization, 2009. National Crime Victimization Survey, Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  50. Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2007). The racial divide in support for the death penalty: Does white racism matter? Social Forces, 85(3), 1281–1301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone, M. (2011). The Color of justice (5th ed.). New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  52. Wilson, W. J. (2012). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics and Global StudiesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Personalised recommendations