A Tale of Three States, Part 4: The Racial Threat Hypothesis

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public, Race & Law, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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In the previous post in this series, I highlighted a wide gap in the incarceration rates of Indiana and Minnesota, with Wisconsin in the middle.  The ordering of the three states from highest incarceration rate to lowest corresponds with the ordering from highest rate of violent crime to lowest.  However, for reasons I explained in the previous post, I don’t think  we ought to end our analysis with the simple assertion that high crime drives high incarceration.  For one thing, there is Minnesota: with a crime rate only a little lower than Wisconsin’s, Minnesota has an incarceration rate that is much lower.  There must be other factors at play besides just the crime rate to account for Minnesota’s incarceration rate.  For another, to focus on the crime-incarceration connection begs the question of what drives the very different crime rates of the three states.

In this post, I’ll explore another possible way of accounting for differences in the three states’ incarceration rates, the racial threat hypothesis.  The basic idea is this: a larger racial minority population causes the majority to feel more threatened by the minority and consequently to prefer to stronger social control measures.

Here are the relevant numbers from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota:

IN

  WI

  MN

Black Population (2010)

591,397

359,148

274,412

Blacks as Percentage of Total Population (2010)

9.1%

6.3%

5.2%

Imprisonment Rate (2010, per 100,000)

459.9

387.2

177.8

 

As you can see, the incarceration-rate order tracks the order based on the size of the each state’s black population.

Interestingly, the pattern does not hold if you focus on the size of the white population.  The three states are almost indistinguishable in how white they are, and the order of “whiteness” does not follow the incarceration-rate order: Wisconsin is number one (86.2% white), followed by Minnesota (85.3%) and Indiana (84.3%).  We might hypothesize, then, that there is something about having a relatively large percentage of a particular minority group that tends to push incarceration rates higher.

A similar pattern is evident nationally.  Consider the top ten states by imprisonment rate (from highest to lowest):

Ratio of Blacks to Whites

Rank Among States Based on Black:White Ratio

Ratio of Hispanics to Non-Hispanic Whites

Rank Based on Hispanic Ratio

LA

0.5

2

<0.1

40

MS

0.6

1

<0.1

38

OK

0.1

25

0.1

20

AL

0.4

6

0.1

34

TX

0.2

17

0.5

4

AZ

0.1

33

0.7

1

FL

0.2

11

0.3

7

GA

0.5

2

0.1

15

AR

0.2

14

0.1

27

SC

0.4

5

0.1

29

 

Thus, among the top ten imprisoning states, eight are also among the top ten in the number of blacks or Hispanics relative to whites.  A ninth, Arkansas, is only a little outside the top ten in proportion of blacks.  The tenth, Oklahoma, seems to deviate from the pattern, but is still in the top half of both the black and Hispanic scales.

Now consider the bottom ten imprisoning states (from lowest to highest imprisonment rate):

Ratio of Blacks to Whites

Rank Among States Based on Black:White Ratio

Ratio of Hispanics to Non-Hispanic Whites

Rank Based on Hispanic Ratio

ME

<0.1

44

<0.1

48

MN

0.1

32

0.1

36

NH

<0.1

46

<0.1

45

RI

0.1

29

0.2

13

MA

0.1

27

0.1

22

ND

<0.1

43

<0.1

46

UT

<0.1

45

0.2

13

NB

0.1

34

0.1

25

WA

<0.1

37

0.1

16

VT

<0.1

47

<0.1

47

 

Note that not one of the bottom ten for imprisonment is among the top ten based on the proportion of either blacks or Hispanics.

A possible explanation for these patterns comes from scholars who write about the “racial threat” phenomenon.  I’ll crib a little bit from a fascinating new article by Christian Breunig and Rose Ernst, “Race, Inequality, and the Prioritization of Corrections Spending in the American States,” 1 Race & Justice 233 (2011):

“Racial threat,” in the most simplified terms, describes a group of theories positing a relationship between the sizes of the Black population in one area to the extent of social control measures aimed at that population.  Broadly speaking, this theory posits that the presence of a racialized “other” in a population increases fear and/or hostility among White Americans toward this other group which, in turn, provokes support for social control policies.  Social control policies include but are not limited to social service policies such as “welfare,” as well as a host of criminal justice policies.  For example, Pamela Irving Jackson’s work in the area of policing has found a connection “between minority group size, competition for sociopolitical dominance, and the level of policing resources.”  (235)

In order to test the racial threat hypothesis, Breunig and Ernst have studied data from all fifty states over a fifteen-year time period and attempted to control for many different variables.  Their focus was on corrections spending, not imprisonment rates per se (my focus), but one would expect a correlation between the two.  More specifically, their dependent variable was what they call the “corrections priority index” (CPI), which is simply the percentage of state spending that goes to corrections.

Surprisingly, Breunig and Ernst found that CPI does not seem to be determined by any of the obvious political factors, such as which party is in power or whether the population is more liberal or conservative:

An intriguing aspect of our analysis is that we did not discover any evidence that institutional and political factors, including partisanship, divided government, referendum, and citizen ideology, influence the prioritization of corrections spending.  (243)

If not those factors, then what?

On the whole, our analysis suggests that structural factors, specifically racial threat and inequality, are the dominant forces in determining the prioritization of corrections spending. . . . We also find that the number of people incarcerated in state prisons as well as murder rates are statistically significant but have only small effect.  (243)

Breunig and Ernst more precisely quantified the racial effect as follows: “[A] 1% increase in the percentage of the African American population in a state leads to at least a 0.2% increase in the CPI.”  (244)

One potential response to this research is that race per se may not matter since we know that race is closely correlated in this country with poverty.  In other words, one might wonder if the “racial threat” theory should be recast as a “poverty threat” theory.

However, Breunig and Ernst also considered the effect of economic inequality on the CPI, and found that the racial variable had a distinct effect.  At all levels of inequality, increasing the black percentage of the population also increased the CPI.  Breunig and Ernst did find that inquality mattered, but only in states with relatively low black populations.  They suggest that “racial cleavages” are the primary social division that politicians exploit, but that class cleavages become salient in their own right in states in which there is little racial threat (238).

Putting all of this together, we might hypothesize that one explanation for Indiana’s high imprisonment rate (relative to Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s) is that Indiana has a much larger black population, which triggers racial threat dynamics and a more powerful demand in the political system for social control.

But, if that’s right, how do we account for the fact that Indiana has much lower racial disparities in its prison population than its two neighbors to the north?  If Indiana’s whites feel more threatened by blacks, shouldn’t that translate into more vicious racial disparities?

Not necessarily.  This is all quite speculative, but let me suggest three possible reasons why strong racial threat dynamics might not necessarily produce high racial disparities.  First, the political demand for more aggressive social control must be mediated through a legal system that may be more committed to racial equality norms than the population at large.  Second, a relatively large black population probably means not only stronger racial threat effects, but also a greater voice for blacks in a state’s political and legal systems.  Blacks may not be able to (and indeed may not wish to) blunt the state’s demand for penal severity, but may be able to exercise some influence in minimizing the extent to which the demand is met through racially discriminatory policies and practices.  Finally, racial threat dynamics may serve to undermine social trust generally across a state’s population, leading to relatively higher white crime rates.

To be clear, I don’t think anything in my analysis here demonstrates that racial threat dynamics play an important role in explaining the relative imprisonment rates of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  But, to my mind, the racial threat hypothesis remains an intriguing possibility that may warrant further research.

The next post in the series will examine how imprisonment rates in the three states have changed over the past twenty years.

Cross posted at Life Sentences and Prawfs.

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