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Explaining the Great Racial Divide: Perceptions of Fairness in the U.S. Criminal Justice System


Jon Hurwitz ( is professor of political science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Mark Peffley ( is professor of political science, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0027.


We examine the huge racial divide in citizens’ general beliefs about the fairness of the criminal justice system, focusing on the political consequences of these beliefs for shaping diverging interpretations of police behavior. Predictably, most blacks believe the system to be unfair and most whites believe the opposite. More importantly, these beliefs influence the interpretation of events quite differently. African Americans who view the system as unfair are much more suspicious of the police in confrontations with black civilians. Fairness for whites, however, has fewer racial connotations; they naively interpret the confrontations disregarding civilian race. Still, whites holding antiblack stereotypes are much more sympathetic to the police in their confrontations with black civilians.