Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Where You Live and What You Watch: The Impact of Racial Proximity and Local Television News on Attitudes about Race and Crime

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Where You Live and What You Watch: The Impact of Racial Proximity and Local Television News on Attitudes about Race and Crime

Article excerpt

In this article, we investigate the interaction of exposure to stereotype reinforcing local crime news and neighborhood racial context on attitudes about race and crime. To date, there has been little research investigating whether neighborhood context mitigates or exacerbates the impact of exposure to racially stereotypic crime news. Based on theories of schema formation and change, we predict that residential proximity should condition more complex, multidimensional views of blacks, such that whites from those areas would be less negatively influenced by black criminal stereotypes on the news. We collected information about the neighborhood racial context for each respondent in an experiment. We then exposed respondents either to racially stereotypic or non-stereotypic crime stories on local news programs. Results support our central hypothesis. When exposed to racial stereotypes in the news, white respondents living in white homogeneous neighborhoods endorsed more punitive policies to address crime, expressed more negative stereotypic evaluations of blacks, and felt more distant from blacks as a group. Whites from heterogeneous neighborhoods were either unaffected or moved in the opposite direction, endorsing less punitive crime policies, less negative stereotypes, and feeling closer to blacks as a group as a result of exposure to the stereotypic coverage.

An important goal of the modern Civil Rights Movement was social integration. King's "I have a dream speech" is replete with "melting pot" metaphors. Government action during this period also fully embraced integrationism. Important pieces of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968; Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Cooper v. Aaron (1958); and executive orders like #8802, which barred racial discrimination in defense-related industries and government during World War II, were expected to smooth the path for an integrated society

Yet despite significant social, economic, and political changes over the last half century, racial polarization continues to plague significant elements of American life. Geographically, whites tend to live in the suburbs and minorities (especially African Americans) are concentrated in urban centers (Farley and Allen 1987; Massey and Denton 1993). Although there has been a noticeable increase in rates of black suburbanization since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the prevailing pattern is for blacks to move to black suburbs (Cohen and Dawson 1993). The net result is that most people's social networks are racially and ethnically homogeneous (Oliver 1989).

Naturally, the question arises about the effect of racial segregation on public opinion. Traditionally, racial attitudes were thought to vary as a result of interpersonal interactions between the races (Allport 1954). The extent of integrated friendships, church groups, neighborhood associations, and work environments, therefore, determine public attitudes about race. The simplest form of social contact theory argues that intergroup contact successfully reduces prejudice and increases tolerance. Further research has shown that the beneficial effects of contact are in fact dependent on the nature of the contact itself: when people share goals, are not in competition with one another, and are of relatively equal status, the probability of positive interactions increases (Cook 1962, 1978; Forbes 1997; and Pettigrew 1986, 1997).1 Positive interactions between individuals who consider themselves equal and mutually non-threatening lead to a decrease in anxiety about outgroups (Desforges et al. 1991).

On the other hand, group threat theories suggest that racial proximity represents real threat, which, in turn, increases levels of prejudice (Blumer 1958; Campbell 1965; Giles and Evans 1984; Reider 1985). As Kinder and Mendelberg (1995: 404) note, ". . . blacks in the neighborhood threaten property values and safe schools, blacks at church violate definitions of community; blacks at work stir up apprehensions about lost jobs and promotions". …

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