The social, psychological, and political causes of racial disparities in the American Criminal Justice System

Michael Tonry

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

58 Scopus citations


Imprisonment rates for black Americans have long been five to seven times higher than those for whites. The immediate causes are well known: high levels of black imprisonment resulting in part from higher black than white arrest rates for violent crime and vastly higher black drug arrest rates. Drug arrest disparities result from police decisions to concentrate attention on drugs blacks sell and places where they sell them. Prison disparities are aggravated by laws prescribing sentences of unprecedented severity for offenses for which blacks are disproportionately arrested. Those practices and policies were shaped by distinctive sociological, psychological, and political features of American race relations. Work on the psychology of American race relations shows that many white Americans resent efforts made to help black Americans overcome the legacy of racism; that stereotypes of black criminality support whites' attitudes toward drug and crime control policy; and that statistical discrimination, colorism, Afro-American feature bias, and implicit bias cause black offenders to be treated especially severely. Sociological work on racial stratification shows that whites support policies that maintain traditional racial hierarchies. Contemporary drug and crime control policies are components of the Republican Southern Strategy, shaped by and exacerbating those phenomena, to use crime as a "wedge issue" to appeal to whites' racial anxieties and resentments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCrime and Justice
PublisherUniversity of Chicago Press
Number of pages40
ISBN (Print)9780226808819
StatePublished - 2010

Publication series

NameCrime and Justice
ISSN (Print)0192-3234


Dive into the research topics of 'The social, psychological, and political causes of racial disparities in the American Criminal Justice System'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this