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Why Do White People Worry about Crime Most When They Suffer from it Least?

Why Do White People Worry about Crime Most When They Suffer from it Least?: © Bettmann / CORBIS

© Bettmann / CORBIS

Whites are less likely to experience crime and more likely to support punitive criminal justice policies. That’s one of the striking conclusions of Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, issued by The Sentencing Project.

In 2008 African-Americans experienced 78 percent more burglaries than whites and 133 percent more motor vehicle theft. In 2012 blacks were 66 percent more likely to be victims of assault and robbery. Hispanics experienced 46 percent more property crimes than non-Hispanics in 2008 and 37 percent more assaults in 2012.

Despite the fact that they are less likely to be victims, white people are consistently more likely to demand harsh punishments and more policing. A survey of opinion in the 2000s found that 73 percent of whites felt that courts did not deal harshly enough with crime in contrast to 64 percent of blacks.

A 2013 survey found that whites supported the death penalty by 63 percent to 30 percent while only 36 percent of blacks supported it and 55 percent did not. Among Hispanics, 40 percent supported and 50 percent opposed.

Support for criminal justice crackdowns, then, is fueled by support from the people least affected by crime. The Sentencing Project argues that the main reason for this is racial bias. White people stereotype blacks and Hispanics as criminals, and explicit or unconscious biases against people of color lead to support for punitive policies.

In analyzing the causes of these attitudes, The Sentencing Project is focused on the impetus for recent punitive sentiment—including politicians’ demagoguery of crime and local news coverage. Fears around white vulnerability, though, have been around for much longer than that. And these fears are inevitably tied to outsized and essentially hypocritical paranoia around black violence.

This paranoia is reflected all around us.

To take just one example, John Rieder argues in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction that science-fiction fantasies have embraced white paranoia from the genre’s inception. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds from 1897 famously imagines what would happen if someone else invaded England the way England had invaded so many other places around the globe (Wells mentions Tasmania specifically.)

The Martians’ superior weaponry, genocidal violence and their use of some native earthlings to police others all had obvious parallels in England’s treatment of its own empire. Wells’ message was at least in part anti-colonial. But his book is also built on displaced, guilty terror that the violence visited on others would, via cosmic karma, strike down white people themselves.

Wells’ reverse colonial nightmare has had many successors, from the Russian invasion fantasy of Red Dawn (1984) to the North Korean invasion fantasy of Olympus Has Fallen (2013) to our current terror of invasion by supposedly dangerous Syrian refugees.

The ugliest example of such fantasy, though, comes from Nazi history. In his three-volume study of the Nazi regime, Richard J. Evans explained that Hitler believed that “the Jews were hell-bent on the extermination of the German race,” which “provided an implicit justification for killing them en masse.”

This paranoia intensified as WWII drew to a close; many Germans were convinced that the Allies, under Jewish influence, were bent on a genocide of the German people. Just as Wells fantasized about reverse colonialism, the Nazis, having committed an atrocity, imagined that the same violence would be visited on them.

In Germany the imagined vulnerability was both a cause of violence and a product of it. Fear of Jews led to the ovens, and the ovens, in turn, sparked guilty nightmares of payback.

White paranoia in the United States seems part of a similar dynamic. The anxiety about black crime is both an excuse for harsh criminal justice policies and a furtively guilty response to them. The fear that black people are going to do harm to white people seems like a tacit admission that black people have a reason to be angry. The use of violence, policing and imprisonment doesn’t create a feeling of security. It just makes you terrified that somehow, someway, the oppressed will rise up and treat you as you treated them.

If that’s so, then throwing more people of color in prison will not lower white fear of crime. The best way to combat fear is to pull back from punitive policies, not double down on them. Paranoia breeds paranoia. Stop oppressing the Martians, and those visions of Martians will stop oppressing you.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.

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