Researchers look at perceptions versus reality of race and criminality

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and summer 2020 protests surrounding the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other persons of color, researchers at Penn State Harrisburg sought to understand whether Pennsylvanians’ perceptions of criminality and violence shifted in response to increased media attention of police-citizen interactions.

Eileen M. Ahlin, associate professor of criminal justice in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Public Affairs, said, “The United States was founded and formed on racial divides. These divides have historically contributed to perceptions that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to commit crimes that come to the attention of police and result in arrest. We wanted to see if increased media attention impacted these perceptions.”

The study was partially based on an exercise that Shaun L. Gabbidon, distinguished professor of criminal justice, has used in his race and crime course for more than two decades. In the exercise, students are asked to estimate the percentage of national arrests for serious offenses by race/ethnicity.

Using the Lion Poll, an omnibus web-based survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research (CSR) at Penn State Harrisburg, Ahlin and Gabbidon collected data to assess citizen perceptions on perceived criminality at two time points, fall 2018 and fall 2020 (download the research brief in PDF format).

The two samples — consisting of 1,048 (fall 2018) and 1,001 (fall 2020) — completed surveys. All respondents were asked “Which racial/ethnic group do you believe is arrested for the largest proportion of serious crime in the United States?”

What the researchers discovered was that increased media attention did not shift perception.

“The findings of which racial/ethnic group is arrested for the largest portion of serious crime are problematic because these perceptions are not in line with official arrest data,” said Ahlin. “Such disconnect between perceptions and official data can contribute to racial tensions in our communities. There is a need to educate the public on the discrepancies between perceptions, criminal behavior, and arrests.”

In the 2020 survey, 51% of whites, 78% of Blacks, and 61% of Hispanics believe Black people are arrested for the largest portion of serious crime in the U.S. There were no differences by gender.

The researchers found that among Pennsylvanians, perceptions of the race and ethnicity of persons arrested for serious crime do not align. While many Pennsylvanians believe that serious crimes are predominantly committed by Black persons, the reality is that police records show that Black people are arrested for a smaller proportion of serious crime than white people.

In the survey, all respondents were asked “Which racial/ethnic group do you believe is arrested for the largest proportion of serious crime in the United States?” In both years, respondents predominantly said that Black people are arrested for the largest portion of serious crime. This result is in stark contrast to official data on arrests for serious crime such as homicide, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

Using a vignette study design, respondents were also asked how worried they would be if they were walking through a low-income, predominantly [white/Black/Latino] neighborhood in an unfamiliar area after dark. In the 2020 poll, 17% of respondents said they would be “extremely worried” walking through a mostly white neighborhood, 25% would be “extremely worried” walking through a mostly Black neighborhood, and 20% would be “extremely worried” walking through a mostly Latino neighborhood, suggesting that Pennsylvanians worry more in non-white neighborhoods.

“This research is important now because of the recent atmosphere in the United States around race and ethnic relations,” said Ahlin. “In the past five years, there has been increased discourse in the media on the perceived threat of immigrant populations, particularly those coming to the United States from Mexico and Central American countries. Since 2013, there has been increased attention paid to police-minority relations with the Black Lives Matter movement. This research shows that Pennsylvanians' do not hold beliefs consistent with a portrayal of Latino people as criminals. However, Pennsylvanians' do hold beliefs about Black people and serious crime that are inconsistent with official crime data.”