Racial Threat and Incarceration Rates

Joshua Lott / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Jacob Kang-Brown of the Vera Institute of Justice wrote an excellent analysis for us about how America’s smallest counties are seriously outpacing its largest cities of Los Angeles and New York in putting people in jail over the past several decades. It’s an excellent and necessary read, and as a small-town enthusiast, I hope it can help expand the criminal justice focus from the dysfunction in big cities to the alarming game of catch-up in rural places.

Kang-Brown’s article doesn’t explore much in the “why” of small counties’ recent aggression in jail incarceration, and that’s by design. In correspondence, Kang-Brown shared some lovely data output with me and said he's working on figuring out the tangled knot of causality there. But one part of the original article caught my eye and I think it deserves a little bit of a closer look:

When thinking in terms of populations, might the increasing numbers of people behind bars in small counties be caused by rapidly shifting demographics, particularly in diversifying suburban areas? Though the number of people of color in very small counties has grown, this relatively moderate population growth does not explain the huge increase in jail incarceration. When looking at the changes in terms of rate of jail incarceration, the racial disparities in the very small counties become even more visible. (Looking at rate controls for changes in the population, by taking the number of people of color who are jailed per 100,000 people of color aged 15-64.)

This is an important point. The population of the United States is shifting toward the less urbanized South and West, and southern and western suburban areas frequently sprawl out to historically rural counties. Rural areas are getting more and more diverse as a result, which might cause racial tensions and simply increase opportunities for criminal-justice systems geared towards accosting minorities to accost them. But while the conclusion here is that moderate increases in diversity can’t fully explain an explosion of incarceration of people of color in small counties, I think there are a few mechanisms that might allow a sort of amplification.

As concentrations of people of color––especially Hispanics in recent years––increase in rural areas, these areas have demonstrated stubborn patterns of “racial underbounding” and segregation by annexation that simultaneously increase the diversity of some peripheral areas and decrease it in others. And with those phenomena might come “racial threat,” which Kang-Brown and I discussed. Here’s a good primer on racial threat. Essentially, it’s a theory that suggests racial inequality in policing and criminal-justice practices increases as the diversity of an area increases. This theory informs the focus of public debate on criminal justice in big, relatively diverse cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

I think racial threat might be enough to explain why diversifying small counties are so zealous in throwing people in jail. Vera Institute data show that the smallest counties had a mean increase in people of color of 239 percent from 1990-2013. That’s a lot of people! And while that number actually pales in comparison to the 300 percent of other counties, it’s worth noting that many small, very rural counties start at a much smaller baseline and are dealing with both shifts towards a more cosmopolitan identity and a diversity shock. In essence, some folks are going from situations where they may generally see just a handful of other people everyday to one in which they see a handful of Black or Latino people everyday. Anecdotally, as a person who spent some of my childhood in Brunswick County, Virginia, a county of 17,000 people, I can attest to how such seemingly-small changes in social order can spark outsized responses in very small places.

My theory here is informed by an incredible study on diversity and segregation in rural places. Long story short, segregation in small, rural places increases as they gain more people, gain more diversity, and as patterns of annexation slice and dice peripheral communities, at least to a point. And incarceration has always had a pretty strong relationship with segregation. So the mechanism, at least, is here for racial threat to be amplified by social and spatial factors in small counties enough to explain the boom in jails.

There are certainly likely to be some other contributing factors in the explosion of jail incarceration in small counties, and as Kang-Brown notes, they might end up providing the bulk of the explanation. I look forward to more research. But I think there’s a viable enough pathway here to do some more digging on the effects of racial threat on all kinds of social ills in small counties.