The Racial Politics of Mass Incarceration

78 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2017  

John Clegg

NYU Sociology

Adaner Usmani

Brown University

Date Written: February 15, 2017


Dominant accounts of America's punitive turn assume that black elected officials and their constituents resisted higher levels of imprisonment and policing. We gather new data and find little support for this view. Panel regressions and an analysis of federally-mandated redistricting suggest that black elected officials had a punitive impact on imprisonment and policing. We corroborate this with public opinion and legislative data. Pooling 300,000 respondents to polls between 1955 and 2014, we find that blacks became substantially more punitive over this period, and were consistently more fearful of crime than whites. The punitive impact of black elected officials at the state and federal level was concentrated at the height of public punitiveness. In short, the racial politics of punishment are more complex than the conventional view allows. We find evidence that black elected officials and the black public were more likely than whites to support non-punitive policies, but conclude that they were constrained by the context in which they sought remedies from crime.

Keywords: crime, criminal justice, public opinion, race, mass incarceration

Suggested Citation

Clegg, John and Usmani, Adaner, The Racial Politics of Mass Incarceration (February 15, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

John Clegg

NYU Sociology ( email )

295 Lafayette St., 4th Floor, office 4185
New York, NY 10012
United States


Adaner Usmani (Contact Author)

Brown University ( email )

111 Thayer Street
Box 1970
Providence, RI 02912-1970
United States

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