The Numbers Don’t Speak for Themselves: Racial Disparities and the Persistence of Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

By Rebecca C. HeteyJennifer L. Eberhardt
Current Directions in Psychological Science
May2018 Vol. 27 Issue 3 Pages 183–187.

Many scholars and activists assume the public would be motivated to fight inequality if only they knew the full extent of existing disparities. Ironically, exposure to extreme disparities can cause people to become more, not less, supportive of the very policies that create those disparities (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2014). Here, we focus on the criminal justice system—policing and incarceration in particular. We argue that bringing to mind racial disparities in this domain can trigger fear and stereotypic associations linking Blacks with crime. Therefore, rather than extending an invitation to reexamine the criminal justice system, the statistics about disparities may instead provide an opportunity to justify and rationalize the disparities found within that system. With the goals of spurring future research and mitigating this paradoxical and unintended effect, we propose three potential strategies for more effectively presenting information about racial disparities: (a) offer context, (b) challenge associations, and (c) highlight institutions.