The Political Origins of Racial Inequality

Published date01 September 2017
Date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18okHsLOoW45a3/input 704518PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917704518Political Research QuarterlyMaltby
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 535 –548
The Political Origins of Racial Inequality
© 2017 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912917704518
Elizabeth Maltby1
Policy feedback theory argues that public policies shape mass political behavior by teaching citizens about their
relationship to government. I reevaluate this argument by examining how criminal justice policy shapes the political
orientations and participation of blacks and whites. I argue that, because these policies send different messages to
blacks than to whites about the treatment they can expect from government, these groups have opposite reactions
to criminal justice enforcement. Using data from a 2014 national survey and information on local criminal justice
outcomes, I find that racially skewed criminal justice enforcement is associated with negative political orientations and
lower rates of political participation for highly educated blacks. I also find that whites respond positively to similar
criminal justice outcomes when they reside in areas with large black populations. The results show that unequal policy
outcomes lead to political inequality.
policy feedback, criminal justice, race, political orientations, participation
The capacity of the prison and jailing system has grown
family and former neighbors of the incarcerated (Burch
dramatically over the past several decades, and today the
2013; Lee, Porter, and Comfort 2014). Because blacks
per capita prison population in the United States is higher
are more likely to have first- and secondhand experi-
than in all but one other nation (Walmsley 2015). But the
ences with the criminal justice system, such demobiliz-
expansion of the carceral state has not affected all groups
ing effects disproportionately hurt the black community.
equally. Blacks are disproportionately hurt by the justice
But criminal justice policy may have broader effects
system’s growth. Between 1980 and 2014, the black
by leading to gaps in participation for blacks and whites
incarceration rate increased from 5.19 to 13.92 per one
without any policy experience. Policy feedback theory
thousand black citizens. The white incarceration rate dur-
tells us that policies should affect mass political behavior
ing that period increased from only 0.79 to 2.37 per one
(Mettler and Soss 2004). I argue that criminal justice pol-
thousand white citizens (Bureau of Justice Statistics
icy also affects the behavior of those in the general pub-
2014). Such striking disparities in criminal justice lic. But unlike traditional mass feedback studies that
enforcement hold true even for crimes that both races are
assume policies have a uniform effect on all citizens, I
equally likely to commit (Tonry 2014). Racial inequali-
argue that feedback effects for various groups should dif-
ties also can be seen in everyday police encounters such
fer depending on whether they are targeted by policy.
as routine traffic stops. Although blacks and whites are
Because the justice system disproportionately focuses on
equally likely to be stopped while driving, black drivers
African Americans, criminal justice policy sends differ-
are three times more likely to be searched during a stop
ent messages to blacks than to whites about what to
and twice as likely to experience violent force by police
expect from government. Thus, blacks should respond
officers compared with white drivers (Eith and Durose
differently than whites to the unequal enforcement of
these policies.
Has the unequal enforcement of criminal justice pol-
In this article, I examine whether racially skewed
icy led to other inequalities between blacks and whites,
criminal justice enforcement affects the orientations and
such as disparate rates of political participation? Yes, at
participation of blacks and whites. Below, I explain a
least for those with personal experience with the carceral
state. Studies show direct contact with the justice system
1University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA
reduces political engagement and, often, leads to disen-
Corresponding Author:
franchisement (Lerman and Weaver 2014; Uggen and
Elizabeth Maltby, Department of Political Science, University of Iowa,
Manza 2002). These outcomes may also spill over to
341 Schaeffer Hall, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA.
those who contact authorities indirectly, such as the

Political Research Quarterly 70(3)
general theory of how policy affects the behavior of indi-
But the mass audience for policy signals extends
viduals with no personal policy experience. I then apply
beyond policy recipients to include the general public
my theory to criminal justice policy. Using a 2014 Pew
(Mettler and Soss 2004, 61). Unlike those with direct
Research Center public opinion survey and data from the
policy contact, the public receives messages about target
Census of Jails on inequalities in local law enforcement,
groups indirectly through media, political discourse, or
I find that criminal justice policy leads to gaps in the
by witnessing policy outcomes (Soss and Schram 2007,
political orientations and participation of blacks and
121). Indirect knowledge of a target group’s policy expe-
whites. As criminal justice enforcement becomes more
rience teaches the public which groups deserve govern-
racially biased, highly educated blacks lose faith in gov-
mental benefits. Policy also may change the public’s
ernment and become less engaged in the political process.
attitudes toward government and levels of political
Whites, however, become more positively oriented engagement. Public approval of policymakers or trust in
toward government in response to unequal policy out-
government should increase when policies benefit posi-
comes, at least in areas where policy is salient. My find-
tively constructed groups or punish negatively con-
ings indicate that inequalities in criminal justice policy
structed groups. Policies that go against a target group’s
may result in political inequality.
stereotypes lead to less approval and trust.
Scholars of mass feedback effects typically presup-
Policy Feedback and Target Group
pose that the entire public uniformly responds to policy
outcomes even though support for this assumption is
mixed (see Campbell 2012; Pacheco 2013; Soss and
According to the social construction theory of policy
Schram 2007). However, we should not expect all groups
design, groups are socially constructed to be positively
to react uniformly to policy. Instead, various groups
or negatively viewed by the public, and politicians con-
receive different signals from policy and are likely to
sider these constructions when creating policies. respond to policy’s signals differently.
Schneider and Ingram (1993) distinguish between four
Feedback effects should differ for those targeted by
broad categories of target populations: advantaged (pos-
policy and those outside policy’s target group, referred to
itive constructions, powerful), contender (negative, as the nontarget group. When policymakers construct a
powerful), dependent (positive, weak), and deviant
policy’s target group, they simultaneously define a non-
(negative, weak). To gain electoral benefits, policymak-
target population and send signals about the relative sta-
ers oversubscribe beneficial policies, such as tax breaks,
tus of both groups. For instance, when policies sanction a
to well-liked groups with high levels of political power
target group, nontarget group members are led to believe
and disproportionately design burdensome policies,
that policy should burden them less often than the target
such as incarceration, for groups with negative social
group. Similarly, policies that offer benefits to targeted
constructions and little political clout. By systematically
recipients teach nontarget group members that they are
allocating benefits to some and burdens to others, poli-
not entitled to the same benefits as the target group. Thus,
cies tell both policy recipients and the general public
by observing how policy constructs target groups, indi-
that certain groups are more entitled to government’s
viduals with no policy contact learn about their relative
help. For example, by incarcerating felons, criminal jus-
status in society. Because policy sends opposing signals
tice policy teaches citizens that felons deserve punitive
about each group’s relative status, target groups and non-
policies and that felons should be disliked by society.
target groups should have opposite reactions to policy.
Over time, a policy’s signals change society’s percep-
While all individuals within a target population should
tions of the target group and orientations toward govern-
react similarly to policy, the magnitude of feedback
ment, a process termed policy feedback.
effects likely differs among subsets of the group. Some
Scholars have primarily tested the direct effects of
members of the target population experience policy
these signals on the political behavior of policy recipi-
directly. Others lack firsthand experience but are still
ents. As individuals interact with policy, they learn
affected by the...

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