Black Americans tend to be most upset by Black-on-Black crime, study finds

Black Americans show the highest levels of anger and shame after reading about Black-on-Black crime, according to a study published in Research & Politics. The study examines how race impacts Black Americans’ emotional reactions to violent crimes, as well as their perceptions of justice.

“We became interested in this topic shortly after the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were both in graduate school and rather perplexed by the social media protests of people in hoodies holding bags of Skittles and or iced tea,” explained study authors Camille D. Burge of Villanova University and Gbemende Johnson of Hamilton College.

“It seemed like anger in the Black community surrounding this murder was at an all-time high and led to social media protests and real protests related to stand your ground legislation in the state of Florida. We wanted to better understand the dynamics that we were observing for this incident, as well as previous incidents where race was made salient, along with their implications for politics.”

The researchers surveyed about 900 Black Americans in 2013 regarding their emotions and attitudes about punishment for violent crimes. Before completing the survey, the participants read one of five fictitious news articles about a murder and subsequent arrest. The articles varied the race of the victim and perpetrator.

Burge and Johnson found that the participants supported harsher punishments for criminals when the perpetrator was White. Specifically, participants who read about White perpetrators were more likely to agree with the statement, “The best way to deal with violent crimes is to dramatically increase prison terms for people who commit violent crimes.”

Black people also reported feeling the angriest when the victim and perpetrator were both Black, followed by when the victim was Black and the perpetrator was White. Similarly, the participants reported feeling the most shame when the perpetrator and the victim were both Black, followed by when the perpetrator was Black and the victim was White.

“The way in which Black people respond to violent crime is multi-faceted. The findings of increased anger in response to intergroup violent crime was somewhat expected given the historical context of race-based violence (i.e. lynchings, Emmett Till, James Byrd) in the United States,” Burge and Johnson told PsyPost.

“However, one cannot simply say that Black people only seem to get angry when it’s White-on-Black violence and have a limited reaction when there is Black-on-Black violence. We find that our Black respondents were the most angry and ashamed when the perpetrator was Black, regardless of the race of the victim.”

“It is not just intergroup violence that Black people emotionally respond to and become more politically engaged but also intragroup violence. We believe this is not discussed nearly enough in national conversations surrounding race and crime,” the researchers explained.

All research includes some limitations, and the current study is no exception.

“Our survey experiment represents a snapshot in time. Would our results differ if we were to conduct the same study in a different time period?” Burge and Johnson said.

“There are also a number of questions that need to be addressed that are related to the mechanism causing the emotional reaction. We focused on the race of the victim and perpetrator involved in a crime. Is that it? How and in what ways might the following matter: the type of crime, the race and gender of the perpetrator or victim, and the amount of time it takes to arrest a perpetrator?”

“Moreover, we also need a better understanding of the ways in which reactions to these types of violent crime stimulate or constrain political behavior (i.e. voting, protesting, and shifts in policy opinions).”

Previous research has examined how racial stereotypes influence White Americans’ attitudes about the criminal justice system. But research on Black Americans’ perception of crime is lacking, the researchers said.

“The literature related to crime and public opinion needs to do a better job of examining people of color and their opinions. More often than not, people of color in these studies are targets of White opinion as opposed to agents with opinions,” they explained.

“Secondly, there needs to be more literature that examines collective or group-oriented emotional experiences in politics. Psychology scholars have done a great deal of work on group-based and intergroup emotions. Political psychology scholars should use this research to further understand how emotions experienced at the group level, beyond partisanship, might shape one’s policy opinions, attitudes towards groups, and political participation.”

The study, “Race, crime, and emotions“, was published online August 31, 2018.