Ten Lessons for Talking About Race, Racism, and Racial Justice

Updated July 2020

As we strive to improve conversations about race, racism, and racial justice in this country, the environment in which we’re speaking seems to be constantly shifting, which shows that these conversations are more important than ever. We’ve put together some advice on finding entry points based on research, experience, and the input of partners from around the country. This is by no means a complete list, but it is a starting point for moving these discussions forward.

Please note that while there are many reasons to communicate with various audiences about racial justice issues, this memo focuses on messaging with the primary goal of persuading them toward action. There are many times when people need to communicate their anger, frustration, and pain to the world and to speak truth to power. Doing so may not always be persuasive, but that obviously doesn’t make it any less important. Since we’re considering persuasion a priority goal in this memo, please consider the following advice through that lens.

1. Lead with Shared Values: Justice, Opportunity, Community, Equity

Starting with values that matter to your audience can help people to “hear” your messages more effectively than dry facts or emotional rhetoric would. Encouraging people to think about shared values encourages aspirational, hopeful thinking. When possible, this can be a better place to start when entering tough conversations than a place of fear or anxiety.

Sample Language:

Sample 1: To work for all of us, the people responsible for our justice system have to be resolute in their commitment to equal treatment and investigations based on evidence, not stereotypes or bias. But too often, police departments use racial profiling, which singles people out because of their race or accent, instead of evidence of wrongdoing. That’s against our national values, it endangers our young people, and it reduces public safety. We need to ensure that law enforcement officials are held to the constitutional standards we value as Americans—protecting public safety and the rights of all.

Sample 2: We’re a better country when we make sure everyone has a chance to meet their full potential. We say we’re a country founded on the ideals of opportunity and equality and we have a real responsibility to live up to those values. Discrimination based on race is contrary to our values and we need to do everything in our power to end it.

2. Use Values as a Bridge, Not a Bypass.

Opening conversations with shared values helps to emphasize society’s role in affording a fair chance to everyone. But starting conversations here does not mean avoiding discussions of race. We suggest bridging from shared values to the roles of racial equity and inclusion in fulfilling those values for all. Doing so can move audiences into a frame of mind that is more solution-oriented and less mired in skepticism about the continued existence of discrimination or our ability to do anything about it.

Sample Language:

It’s in our nation’s interest to ensure that everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. But that’s not happening in our educational system today, where children of color face overcrowded classrooms, uncertified teachers, and excessive discipline far more often than their white peers. If we don’t attend to those inequalities while improving education for all children, we will never become the nation that we aspire to be.


A beautiful thing about this country is its multiracial character. But right now, we’ve got diversity with a lot of segregation and inequity. I want to see a truly inclusive society. I think we will always struggle as a country toward that—no post-racial society is possible or desirable—but every generation can make progress toward that goal. – Rinku Sen, Race Forward, to NBC News[1]

3. Know the Counter Narratives.

Some themes consistently emerge in conversations about race, particularly from those who do not want to talk about unequal opportunity or the existence of racism. While we all probably feel like we know these narratives inside out, it’s still important to examine them and particularly to watch how they evolve and change. The point in doing this is not to argue against each theme point by point, but to understand what stories are happening in people’s heads when we try to start a productive conversation. A few common themes include:

  • The idea that racism is “largely” over or dying out over time.
  • People of color are obsessed with race.
  • Alleging discrimination is itself racist and divisive.
  • Claiming discrimination is “playing the race card,” opportunistic, hypocritical demagoguery.
  • Civil rights are a crutch for those who lack merit or drive.
  • If we can address class inequality, racial inequity will take care of itself.
  • Racism will always be with us, so it’s a waste of time to talk about it.

4. Talk About the Systemic Obstacles to Equal Opportunity and Equal Justice.

Too often our culture views social problems through an individual lens – what did a person do to “deserve” his or her specific condition or circumstance? But we know that history, policies, culture and many other factors beyond individual choices have gotten us to where we are today.

When we’re hoping to show the existence of discrimination or racism by pointing out racially unequal conditions, it’s particularly important to tell a full story that links cause (history) and effect (outcome). Without this important link, some audiences can walk away believing that our health care, criminal justice or educational systems work fine and therefore differing outcomes exist because BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color) are doing something wrong.


“The widely-discussed phenomenon of ‘driving while black’ illustrates the potential abuse of discretion by law enforcement. A two-year study of 13,566 officer-initiated traffic stops in a Midwestern city revealed that minority drivers were stopped at a higher rate than whites and were also searched for contraband at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Yet, officers were no more likely to find contraband on minority motorists than white motorists.” – The Sentencing Project publication, “Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Policymakers”[2]

“Native Americans and Alaska Natives are often unable to vote because there are no polling places anywhere near them. Some communities, such as the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and the Goshute Reservation in Utah, are located more than 100 miles from the nearest polling place.” – Julian Brave NoiseCat, Native Issues Fellow at the Huffington Post[3]

5. Be Rigorously Solution-Oriented and Forward-Looking.

After laying the groundwork for how the problem has developed, it’s key to move quickly to solutions. Some people who understand that unequal opportunity exists may also believe that nothing can be done about it, leading to “compassion fatigue” and inaction. Wherever possible, link a description of the problem to a clear, positive solution and action, and point out who is responsible for taking that action.

Sample Language:

Sample 1: Asian Americans often face particularly steep obstacles to needed health care because of language and cultural barriers, as well as limited insurance coverage. Our Legislature can knock down these barriers by putting policies in place that train health professionals, provide English language learning programs, and organize community health centers.

Sample 2: The Department of Justice, Congress, local and state legislatures, and prosecutors’ offices should ensure that there is fairness in the prosecutorial decision-making process by requiring routine implicit bias training for prosecutors; routine review of data metrics to expose and address racial inequity; and the incorporation of racial impact review in performance review for individual prosecutors. DOJ should issue guidance to prosecutors on reducing the impact of implicit bias in prosecution.[4]


“Organizing to achieve public policy change is one major aspect of our larger mission to create freedom and justice for all Black people. Our aim is to equip young people with a clear set of public policy goals to organize towards and win in their local communities.” –BYP 100, “Agenda to Keep Us Safe,” website[5]

6. Consider Audience and Goals.

In any communications persuasion strategy, we should recognize that different audiences need different messages and different resources. In engaging on topics around race, racism, and racial justice, this is particularly important. We all know that people throughout the country are in very different places when it comes to their understanding of racial justice issues and their willingness to talk about them. While white people in particular need anti-racism resources and messaging that brings them into conversations about racism, there exists uncertainty or inexperience in other groups when it comes to talking about, for instance, anti-Black racism, stereotypes around indigenous communities, or anti-immigrant sentiments that are highly racialized. In strategizing about audience, the goal should be to both energize the base and persuade the undecided. A few questions to consider:

Who are you hoping to influence? Narrowing down your target audience helps to refine your strategy.
What do you want them to do? Determine the appropriate action for your audience and strategy. Sometimes you may have direct access to decision makers and are working to change their minds. Other times you may have access to other people who influence the decision makers.
What do you know about their current thinking? From public opinion research, social media scans, their own words, etc.
What do you want to change about that? Consider the change in thinking that needs to happen to cause action.
Who do they listen to? Identify the media they consume and the people who are likely to influence their thinking. This may be an opportunity to reach out to allies to serve as spokespeople if they might carry more weight with certain audiences.

7. Be Explicit About the Intertwined Relationship Between Racism and Economic Opportunity and the Reverberating Consequences.

Many audiences prefer to think that socio-economic factors stand on their own and that if, say, the education system were more equitable, or job opportunities more plentiful, then we would see equal opportunity for everyone. Racism perpetuates poverty among BIPOC and leads these communities to be stratified into living in neighborhoods that lack the resources of white peers with similar incomes. That said, we need to be clear that racism causes more and different problems than poverty, low-resourced neighborhoods or challenged educational systems do and that fixing those things is not enough. They are interrelated, to be sure, but study after study, as well as so many people’s lived experiences, show that even after adjusting for socio-economic factors, racial inequity persists.


Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a new study that traced the lives of millions of children.

White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.

Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. And the gaps only worsen in the kind of neighborhoods that promise low poverty and good schools.[6]

8. Describe How Racial Bias and Discrimination Hold Us All Back.

In addition to showing how discrimination and unequal opportunity harm people of color, it’s important to explain how systemic biases affect all of us and prevent us from achieving our full potential as a country. We can never truly become a land of opportunity while we allow racial inequity to persist. And ensuring equal opportunity for all is in our shared economic and societal interest. In fact, eight in ten Americans believe that society functions better when all groups have an equal chance in life.[7]

Research also shows that people are more likely to acknowledge that discrimination against other groups is a problem – and more likely to want to do something about it – if they themselves have experienced it. Most people have at some point felt on the “outside” or that they were unfairly excluded from something, and six in ten report that they’ve experienced discrimination based on race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or accent.[8] Reminding people of this feeling can help them think about what racism and oppression really mean for others as well as themselves.

Sample Language:

Virtually all of us have been part of a family with kids, some of us are single parents, and many of us will face disabilities as we age. Many of those circumstances lead to being treated differently – maybe in finding housing, looking for a job, getting an education. We need strong laws that knock down arbitrary and subtle barriers to equal access that any of us might face.


“Discrimination isn’t just an insult to our most basic notions of fairness. It also costs us money, because those who are discriminated against are unable to make the best use of their talents. This not only hurts them, it hurts us all, as some of our best and brightest players are, in essence, sidelined, unable to make their full contributions to our economy.” – David Futrelle, Economic Reporter in Time Magazine[9]

“Racial inclusion and income inequality are key factors driving regional economic growth, and are positively associated with growth in employment, output, productivity, and per capita income, according to an analysis of 118 metropolitan regions. … Regions that became more equitable in the 1990s—with reductions in racial segregation, income disparities, or concentrated poverty—experienced greater economic growth as measured by increased per capita income.” – PolicyLink publication, “All-In Nation”[10]

9. Listen to and Center the Voices of BIPOC.

As social justice advocates, we should be accustomed to centering the voices of those who are most affected by any issue. It should go without saying that when talking about racism, that BIPOC should lead the strategies about how to counter it and dismantle white supremacy. This means:

  • Taking cues from anti-racist BIPOC leaders on things like preferred language and strategy;
  • Reducing erasure and unpaid labor by giving credit and/or compensation to BIPOC who have sparked movements, coined terms, tested and spread language and so on; and
  • Being vigilant in ensuring that those who have power in our movement share that power with BIPOC, particularly those whose voices have been marginalized and those who experience multiple barriers due biases that affect them intersectionally on many levels.

Centering anti-racist BIPOC voices does not mean expecting members of each group to relive their particular oppression by describing it — or examples of it — for the benefit of the larger movement.

It also does not mean expecting only BIPOC to speak out about racism and oppression. There is room for many voices and a role for different people with different audiences to do the work of changing the narrative about race in this country.

10. Embrace and Communicate Our Racial and Ethnic Diversity while Decentering Whiteness as a Lens and Central Frame.

Underscore that different people and communities encounter differing types of stereotypes and discrimination based on diverse and intersectional identities. This may mean, for example, explaining the sovereign status of tribal nations, the unique challenges posed by treaty violations, and the specific solutions that are needed. At the same time, we need to place whiteness in the context it deserves: as a part of the larger whole and not the center of it. Too often even well-meaning language assume white as the “norm,” which implies that anyone else is an “other.”

Sample Language:

The United States purports to revere the ideals of equality and opportunity. But we’ve never lived up to these ideals, and some of us face more barriers than others in achieving this because of who we are, what we look like or where we come from. We have to recognize this and move toward the ideal that we should all be able to live up to our own potential, whether we are new to this country, or living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, on reservations that are facing economic challenges, or in abandoned factory towns.


“We affirm our commitment to stand against environmental racism and to support Indigenous sovereignty. Across the United States, Black and Brown communities are subject to higher rates of asthma and other diseases resulting from pollution and malnutrition; as demonstrated recently not only at Standing Rock but also through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Our neighborhoods are more likely to have landfills, toxic factories, fracking, and other forms of environmental violence inflicted on them. We will not let this continue.” – Million Hoodies, blog[11]

“At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do.

They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not to really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.” – Reni Eddo-Lodge, author[12]

“The internment was a dark chapter of American history, in which 120,000 people, including me and my family, lost our homes, our livelihoods, and our freedoms because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. … ‘National security’ must never again be permitted to justify wholesale denial of constitutional rights and protections. If it is freedom and our way of life that we fight for, our first obligation is to ensure that our own government adheres to those principles. Without that, we are no better than our enemies. … The very same arguments echo today, on the assumption that a handful of presumed radical elements within the Muslim community necessitates draconian measures against the whole, all in the name of national security.” – George Takei, actor, in the Washington Post[13]

Applying the Lessons

VPSA: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

One useful approach to tying these lessons together is to structure communications around Value, Problem, Solution, and Action, meaning that each message contains these four key components: Values (why the audience should care, and how they will connect the issue to themselves), Problem (framed as a threat to the shared values we have just invoked), Solution (stating what you’re for), and Action (a concrete ask of the audience, to ensure engagement and movement).



To work for all of us, our justice system depends on equal treatment and investigations based on evidence, not stereotypes or bias.


But many communities continue to experience racial profiling, where members are singled out only because of what they look like. In one Maryland study, 17.5% of motorists speeding on a parkway were African-American, and 74.7% were white, yet over 70% of the drivers whom police stopped and searched were black, and at least one trooper searched only African American. Officers were no more likely to find contraband on black motorists than white motorists. These practices erode community trust in police and make the goal of true community safety more difficult to achieve.


We need shared data on police interactions with the public that show who police are stopping, arresting and why. These kinds of data encourage transparency and trust and help police strategize on how to improve their work. They also help communities get a clear picture of police interactions in the community.


Urge your local police department to join police from around the country and participate in these important shared databases.



We’re a better country when we make sure everyone has a chance to meet his, her, or their potential. We say we’re a country founded on the ideals of opportunity and equality and we have a real responsibility to live up to those values. Racism is a particular affront to our values and we need to do everything in our power to end it.


Yet we know that racism persists, and that its effects can be devastating. For instance, African American pregnant women are two to three times more likely to experience premature birth and three times more likely to give birth to a low birth weight infant. This disparity persists even after controlling for factors, such as low income, low education, and alcohol and tobacco use. To explain these persistent differences, researchers now say that it’s likely the chronic stress of racism that negatively affects the body’s hormonal levels and increases the likelihood of premature birth and low birth weights.


We all have a responsibility to examine the causes and effects of racism in our country. We have to educate ourselves and learn how to talk about them with those around us. While we’ve made some important progress in decreasing discrimination and racism, we can’t pretend we’ve moved beyond it completely.


Join a racial justice campaign near you.



We believe in treating everybody fairly, regardless of what they look like or where their ancestors came from.


But what we believe consciously and what we feel and do unconsciously can be two very different things and despite our best attempts to rid ourselves of prejudices and stereotypes, we all have them – it just depends how conscious they are. All of us today know people of different races and ethnicities. And we usually treat each other respectfully and joke around together at work. But for most of us – Americans of all colors – the subtle or not so subtle attitudes of our parents or grandparents, who grew up in a different time, are still with us, even if we consciously reject them.


Personally, I look forward to the day when we can all see past color—all of us, white and black, brown and Asian. To do that, we all have to be aware of what’s going on in our own heads right now. And how that collective bias has shaped our history and where we are now.


But we’re just not there yet. Let’s make it a priority to get there. [14]


[2] The Sentencing Project. Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Policymakers, 2008

[7] The Opportunity Agenda/Langer Associates. The Opportunity Survey, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[12] Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, The Guardian (May 31, 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2017/may/31/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race-podcast

[13] George Takei: They interned my family. Don’t let them do it to Muslims Washington Post (November 18, 2016). https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/18/george-takei-they-interned-my-family-dont-let-them-do-it-to-muslims/?utm_term=.8e15097e3b44

[14] Modified from messages tested in Speaking to the Public about Unconscious Prejudice: Meta-issues on Race and Ethnicity. Drew Westen, Ph.D. March 2014

Talking About COVID-19: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps America, the systemic injustices in our country are being revealed for what they are: from race-class disparity to immigrant injustice and the carceral state. These injustices have existed for a long time and activists, advocates, and creatives have been working to eradicate them for just as long. Yet today, we find ourselves at a unique and critical moment to step up our advocacy for the communities and individuals most vulnerable – communities of color, immigrant communities, incarcerated communities, and low-income communities.

At this pivotal moment, we must work together – in community – to center and uplift the voices of these disproportionately affected populations. This starts by being conscious about our language and messaging. We recommend using a VPSA (Value, Problem, Solution, Action) format when talking about the coronavirus and its response, and centering your language around inclusion, empowerment, and justice.

  • Value: When it comes to addressing COVID-19, we are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk. We are all in this together, and therefore must make sure our messaging around this virus and its containment avoids racist, xenophobic, and biased thinking. We must remember to uphold the value of unity at this time. Through unity – in community – we can overcome what lies ahead.
  • Problem: While the coronavirus does not discriminate against race, ethnicity, nationality, or socio-economic status, stigma and misinformation do. Racist, xenophobic, and unscientific language and messaging – rooted in fear and misinformation – has been circulating during this outbreak, both among the public and within the Trump administration. If left unchecked, this will create a culture of fear and discrimination that hinders efforts to stop the virus and efforts to help communities most at risk.
  • Solution: As social justice leaders and communicators, it is our job to calmly and directly push back against the fear and stigma surrounding COVID-19 with powerful language of inclusion, unity, empowerment, and justice. This will help us be allies to communities of color, immigrant communities, low-income communities, and incarcerated communities, who are likely to be disproportionately affected by this pandemic and the narrative surrounding it.
  • Action: We must continuously call out messaging based in fear and misinformation for the racist, xenophobic, and implicitly biased language that it is – particularly when coming from the Trump administration and the media. We must work together in collaborative conversation to make sure that communities and populations most at risk are receiving the attention and services that they deserve, and that they are not being stigmatized when those services are provided. We must also remember to always use language that is based in justice and equity. The solutions for getting through this pandemic lie in unity and community. We must uplift these values together and remind others to do the same.

Talking About Covid-19: A Call for Racial, Economic, and Health Equity

Justice Reform & Human Rights in a Time of Crisis: Releasing People from Detention

During these times of crisis and uncertainty, it is critical to pull together as a community to ensure that we are all protected against the global threat of COVID-19. Our collective survival demands nothing less.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the systemic inequities in this country’s incarceration and detention policies. This crisis presents a stark moment to address a health and safety threat to all of us, as well as to strive for justice and address systemic inequities directly. For example, a patchwork approach to bail policies and pretrial detention means that too many people are detained without having been convicted of anything, leaving far too many people unjustly serving while also facing what are de facto death sentences due to prison conditions and the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Because there have been an increasing number of infections within the confined spaces of many jails, prisons, and detention centers, it is more important than ever to continue advocacy for justice reform and the release of people who have not had due process. Below are important values to uplift to ensure that your communications are rooted in shared values.

Our Shared Values

Highlight these shared values to illustrate the importance of releasing people from detention facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Human Rights and Dignity. We must protect the human rights of everyone, including people who are currently detained or incarcerated. Our commitment to human rights and respect for the dignity of human life depends on immediate action. Failing to prevent avoidable death during this pandemic would threaten our commitment to basic human rights and respect for human dignity.
  • Our Identity. How we respond to this crisis will define our identity for generations to come. Ensuring that we respect the dignity of people who have been detained in our bloated detention system is critical to our legacy. We must be able to reflect on our collective response to this crisis and be able to say that we did the right thing, leaving no one behind.
  • Shared Responsibility/Community. We should come together as a community to protect the most vulnerable among us. Many people who are detained or incarcerated are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and we have a responsibility to provide them with a safe environment and protect them. We need to band together as a community and develop a plan to quickly remove vulnerable populations from detention.
  • Community Safety. The COVID-19 pandemic makes clear that the use of detention and incarceration for social problems threatens actual public safety and public health as the virus spreads within the carceral system. Reducing incarceration and releasing people from detention facilities across the country would help us achieve true community safety by protecting the health and safety of everyone in our communities, including individuals who are detained.

Sample VPSA Message

In order to deliver a consistent, well-framed message, we recommend structuring messages in terms of Value, Problem, Solution, Action. In particular, leading with shared values instead of dry facts or hot rhetoric helps launch a conversation and provides a foundation to transition into more complex messages.

Value: The COVID-19 pandemic is a clarion call for communities everywhere to come together. We are all in this together because we are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk.

Problem: People throughout this country are detained in crowded detention centers, jails, and prisons. These systems of detention and incarceration are unsafe, unsanitary, and unable to provide an environment of safe, physical distancing during this global health crisis.

Solution: Government officials should begin to rapidly release vulnerable people from our bloated and crowded detention facilities so that they can practice physical distancing and, at the same time, be able to experience due process — particularly those who have not stood trial but are still detained.

Action: Please call/email/Tweet/Facebook message your local politicians to demand that they release the most vulnerable people from prisons, jails and detention facilities.

10 Key Facts About Perception of Fear, Safety & Criminal Justice in CA


In recent years, California has emerged as fertile ground for progressive criminal justice reform, with the passage of policies such as SB 439, SB 1319, and SB 10—just a few examples of activists, advocates, and policymakers’ recent success working within the state. Despite these many gains, challenges abound, including continued resistance to the adoption of policies that rectify the disproportional targeting of communities of color in the past. At the same time, the overt xenophobia in today’s political discourse has made fear-mongering and scapegoating more commonplace in law enforcement and other government agencies interactions with communities of color.

With the goal of gaining a better understanding of these state-level successes and challenges while also gathering insights that can be translated to messaging strategy for use in the field at large, The Opportunity Agenda and the ACLU of California engaged in a collaborative research project examining Californians’ attitudes and beliefs about the criminal justice system. This memo draws from the data from a statewide survey of 1,055 randomly sampled respondents representative of Californians administered in July 2018.


This memo draws on the results of a collaborative research project with the ACLU of California conducted in July 2018. The insights are based on data from a statewide online dial survey administered to a total of 1,055 registered voters in the state. The margin of error is ± 3.1 percent for the overall sample and larger for subgroups.

In this memo, we make references to three populations defined as the base, opposition, and persuadables. Our base, opposition, and persuadables were created using a statistical cluster analysis that identified groups of like-minded voters based on the patterns of their responses to a series of questions about their attitudes toward the criminal justice system, discrimination, racial inequities, and a variety of related topics.


The Opportunity Agenda wishes to thank and acknowledge the many people who contributed their time, energy, and expertise to the research and writing of this report. The survey was commissioned and designed in collaboration with Cheryl Alethia Phelps, Communications Director of the ACLU San Diego and Imperial County and Margaret Dooley-Sammuli. Data was collected, cleaned, and analyzed by Andrew Hart and Steven Riskey of Strop Insights and Kyle Francis of Qualtrics. Additional analysis of data and the drafting of this report was conducted by Lucy Odigie-Turley of The Opportunity Agenda. Recommendations were drafted by Julie-Fisher Rowe of The Opportunity Agenda. The graphics and illustrations were created by Lincoln Bovell. Final proofing and copy editing were conducted by Margo Harris. Finally, this report would have not been possible without the support of our generous funders: American Civil Liberties Union, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, The Libra Foundation, The Tow Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

1. California has a strong base of support for wider criminal justice reform, and a significant portion of Californians are persuadable on a variety of reform issues

As of July 2018, 26 percent of surveyed Californians form part of the base of support for criminal justice reform, 57 percent can be described as persuadable on issues related to criminal justice reform, and 17 percent can be described as oppositional to widespread criminal justice reform. The base is significantly more likely to believe that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unfairly” (73% of the base support this statement, versus 26% of persuadables and just 8% of the opposition) and hold a strong belief that racial and income inequities are serious issues.

The opposition is defined by a strong belief in the fairness of the existing criminal justice system, a preference for harsher punishment over rehabilitation, and support for the profiling of specific racial/ethnic groups. Persuadables hold views that overlap with both the base and opposition but are most strongly defined by their self-reported lack of familiarity with most roles within the criminal justice system, including prosecutors and public defenders.

2. People of color, low-income adults, and the religiously unaffiliated are an important base of support for criminal justice reform in California

Although audience segments are based on respondents’ responses to a range of attitudinal questions, our research findings point to important demographic distinctions between the three segments. As seen in Figure 1, 35 percent of the base self-identified as Black (11%), Latinx/Hispanic (10%), Asian/Pacific Islander (8%), bi/multi-racial (4%), or Native American (2%). A significant portion of people of color also fall within the persuadable audience segment, with Asian/Pacific Islanders slightly more likely to fall into the persuadable (12%) or opposition (12%) than the base (8%) group. Alongside communities of color, those who express no religious affiliation also emerged as an important base of support for criminal justice, with 43 percent of the base self-identifying as having no religious affiliation compared to 26 percent of persuadables and 17 percent of the opposition. The base and persuadables are also significantly more likely than the opposition to be low-income. Twenty-eight percent of the base and 23 percent of persuadables earn less than $25,000 annually, compared to just 11 percent of the opposition. At the same time, just over a quarter (26%) of the opposition earn upwards of $100,000 annually, compared to 15 percent and 14 percent of the base and persuadables, respectively.

3. Base and persuadable audiences have distinct media consumption and engagement habits

Base and persuadable audiences have distinct media consumption and engagement habits: Media consumption and usage habits are increasingly recognized as important predictors of political decision-making and attitudes related to a range of issues. To gauge their impact, if any, on Californians ’ attitude toward the criminal justice system we included a range of questions about participants’ engagement with news and social media and different genres of entertainment media. In terms of entertainment, all audience segments reported similar rates of regular use and engagement on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, but persuadables are slightly more likely to report that they make regular use of Twitter (36%) compared to the base and opposition (27% and 28%, respectively).

4. Police accountability is the highest policy priority identified among all segments

We asked respondents to rank a range of policy solutions intended to reduce unfairness within the criminal justice system from highest to lowest priority (with each respondent given the option to rank every item as a high, moderate, or low priority). Across all three segments “holding police officers who use excessive force accountable,” “addressing instances of police brutality,” “ensuring people of color are treated fairly by law enforcement and within the criminal justice system,” and “minimizing the interactions people suffering from substance abuse have with the criminal justice system” were ranked as the highest policy priorities.

5. Bail reform and issues at the intersection of homelessness and criminal justice are lower priorities among both base and persuadable audiences

Our survey findings indicate that despite widespread recognition of inequities within the criminal justice system and how these inequities disproportionately impact communities of color and those living in poverty, voters are less likely to see bail reform and the treatment of homeless Americans by law enforcement as a high policy priority. Just 47 percent of those surveyed selected “minimizing the interactions people living in homelessness have with the criminal justice system” as a high policy priority (67% of the base, 38% of persuadables, and 35% of the opposition). At the same time, just 45 percent of those surveyed ranked “reducing the cost of bail for low-income Americans” as a high policy priority (59% of the base, 39% of persuadables, and 37% of the opposition).

6. More than half of Californians report knowing someone who has been arrested, and nearly 50 percent know someone who has been incarcerated

In July 2018, 56 percent of surveyed Californians reported that they personally know someone who has been arrested, 49 percent know someone who has been in prison or jail, and a third personally know someone who has been a victim of a violent crime (Table 2). The rate of self-reported experiences with the criminal justice system varies between audience segments, with the base and persuadables more likely than the opposition to report knowing someone who has been arrested (66% and 53% versus 46%, respectively), in prison or jail (59% and 48% versus 40%, respectively), or stopped and searched by a police officer (52% and 38% versus 33%, respectively). Alongside widespread first- and/or second-hand experiences with the criminal justice system, the base is significantly more likely than both persuadables and the opposition to report knowing someone who has been the victim of a violent crime (42% versus 30% and 29%, respectively) or murdered (22% versus 14% and 9%, respectively)—a finding that is one of the most significant variations between base and persuadable audiences in California.

7. Perception of physical safety is a key predictor of attitudes toward and perceptions of the criminal justice system

As noted in our analysis of existing public opinion research related to criminal justice, fear of crime and victimization have long been recognized as a driving force behind Americans’ attitudes toward criminal justice policy. In an effort to examine this relationship more closely in the context of California, we included a series of questions intended to gauge respondents’ level of fear related to their physical safety and the impact, if any, on their attitudes toward criminal justice. Respondents were asked how often they have serious concerns about their safety in a range of places, including at home, while driving, or in their neighborhood, and they ranked this concern on a 5-point scale, from “never” to “often.” We used participants’ responses to create a fear scale, with respondents grouped as low, moderate, or high fear based on their average score.

As of July 2018, 19 percent of Californians surveyed expressed low levels of fear, 68 percent moderate levels of fear, 13 percent high levels of fear related to their physical safety. Respondents’ score on the fear scale correlates strongly with their overall perception of the criminal justice system and proved to be a stronger predictor of attitudes toward the criminal justice system than party affiliation and ideological lean. Those who reported that they were generally “often ” or “nearly always” in fear of their safety and received a high score on the fear scale were also significantly less likely than those with moderate or low fear to believe that the criminal justice system treats people unequally (26% versus 55% and 47%, respectively).

8. Those who express high levels of fear are less likely to report having any direct contact with the criminal justice system, but are also more confident in their perceived knowledge of the criminal justice system

Alongside having a marked impact on people’s overall perception and attitude toward the criminal justice system, fear related to physical safety also correlated strongly with people’s experience with the criminal justice system and perceived knowledge of the criminal justice system. For instance, individuals who scored low or moderately on the fear scale were more likely than those who scored high to report knowing someone who have been arrested (55% and 56% versus 43%, respectively), in prison or jail (49% and 49% versus 41%, respectively). All three segments report similar rates of knowing someone who has been search by a police officer (38%, 42%, and 39%, respectively). However, those who scored high on the fear scale were more likely to report knowing someone who has been murdered, with 20 percent reporting knowing someone who has been murdered versus 14 percent of individuals with moderate fear and 12 percent of individuals with high fear (Figure 2). At the same time, individuals who scored high on the fear scale were also significantly more likely to rate their overall knowledge of the criminal justice system as high (Figure 3). For instance, 44.5 percent of those who scored high on the fear scale also scored high on the self-reported knowledge scale—that is, what they said they knew about or their familiarity with various components and roles within the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and bail bond companies.

At the same time, those with moderate or low fear were also significantly less confident about their knowledge and familiarity of the criminal justice system, with only 27 percent of those who scored low on the fear scale rating their knowledge of the overall criminal justice system as high.

9. Californians believe that Black men, people living in poverty, people without documentation, formerly incarcerated people, and immigrants are the least likely to receive fair treatment within criminal justice

Our findings show that although a plurality of Californians believe that the criminal justice system generally treats people fairly, responses to this question varied significantly between audience segments and also when participants were asked more specific questions regarding who is more or less likely to receive fair treatment. When asked to what extent different demographic groups are treated fairly or unfairly by the criminal justice system, the majority of Californians expressed the belief that Black men (59%), people living in poverty (58%), undocumented immigrants (53%), people who have been incarcerated (53%), and immigrants (52%) are somewhat/very likely to receive unfair treatment in the overall criminal justice system (Figure 4).

10. All segments appear to make a distinction between “unequal” versus “unfair” treatment within the criminal justice system

A key finding of our survey was that Californians across audience segments are significantly more likely to express the belief that the criminal justice system is “unequal” as opposed to “unfair.” Using a random split sampling, we asked 50 percent of respondents in general how “fairly” and the other 50 percent how “equally” they believe the criminal justice system treats people. As seen in Figure 5, whereas 73 percent of the base expressed the belief that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unfairly,” 95 percent of the base express the belief that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unequally,” representing a 22-point variation. A similar trend emerges among both persuadables and the opposition, with a 17-point variation among persuadables and 7-point among the opposition.


Raising American Son: A Discussion Guide

Based on the acclaimed Broadway play, the Netflix Television Event American Son tells the story of Kendra Ellis-Connor (Emmy-nominee Kerry Washington), the mother of a missing teenage boy, as she struggles to put the pieces together in a South Florida police station. Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee also reprise their roles in the adaptation which presents four distinct viewpoints, while also navigating the unique dynamic of an interracial couple trying to raise a mixed-race son. AMERICAN SON delves into the tensions around implicit bias, police-community relations, and families at a time when this nation is deeply divided on these issues.

In an effort to facilitate a broader conversation about race, racism, and the criminal legal system in this country, we hope that Raising American Son: A Discussion Guide proves useful in framing the discussion and guiding you towards useful resources to learn more and to take action.

The discussion guide can be used after viewing the Television Event and in other settings to foster productive conversations about race, policing, and identity. It should also be viewed as only the beginning to what is a conversation that must be thoughtfully continued. American Son and The Opportunity Agenda are working together to provide pathways for civic engagement, action, and online conversations for audience members who are so moved. Follow the conversation using the hashtag #AmericanSon and #FutureOverFear.

Discussion Guide

American Son premiered on Netflix on November 1st.

American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown is directed by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon. Washington and Pilar Savone executive produce under Washington’s banner Simpson Street. Jeffrey Richards and Rebecca Gold also serve as executive producers. 

“Raising American Son: A Discussion Guide” originated in a collaboration between The Opportunity Agenda and American Son, which premiered on Broadway at the Booth Theater on November 4, 2018.

Talking About Due Process and Racial Profiling

Due Process

Core Message: Due process is a human right central to the American justice system. American values of justice and fairness only stand strong when we uphold the right to due process.

Most audiences believe that due process in the legal system is a basic human right, central to preserving and upholding American values of security, fair treatment, and freedom from government persecution. However, while audiences hold the concept dear, they don’t always accept that violations occur, or understand how due process applies to immigrants or asylum seekers. Nonetheless, their embrace of due process as integral to our nation’s identity is an opportunity to tell a story of American values in peril, and to make the case for how to protect and restore them through a commonsense approach to our immigration policies.

  • Lead with Values. Fairness, equality, America’s founding principles. Assert that the United States should protect due process in order to stand up for American values.
  • It’s About All of Us. Research shows that arguments focusing on the goal of protecting our core values resonate better than a focus on protecting the specific rights of specific groups. Emphasize that due process is central to the credibility of our justice system, and that once we start denying rights for one individual or type of people, it puts all individuals’ rights at risk.
  • Define the Term. While audiences are committed to the concept of due process, not all immediately understand the term itself. Describing due process as giving someone a fair trial, or access to courts and lawyers, or a set of standardized rules and procedures to protect individuals from being unfairly treated or imprisoned helps to make the term more accessible.
  • Include positive solutions. This is an opportunity to talk about what does work, not just attack policies that don’t. We should always describe what needs to happen in order to restore and protect due process, and what audiences can do to support positive and effective changes to our immigration policies.
  • Include key information about how the current system denies due process rights to immigrants. Participants are not aware of how laws can violate due process and have a hard time believing that this could be happening. Therefore, it is important to keep the language simple and straightforward. If the rhetoric strays from a simple description, the message may be lost.
  • Include the Right Pieces of the Story. Past research showed that the elements of due process that audiences value the most include timeliness in granting due process, being allowed to call a loved one and a lawyer, and fair treatment.

Sample Language

Due process – access to courts and lawyers and a basic set of rules for how we’re all treated in the justice system – is a human right and central to our country’s values. We should reject any policies that deny due process, for undocumented immigrants or anyone else. Our values of justice and fairness only stand strong when we have one system of justice for everyone. If one group can be denied due process, none of us will be safe to enjoy the rights that this country says it stands for.

When it comes to our outdated immigration laws, we need real solutions that embrace fairness, equal treatment, and due process. Current laws are badly broken, but disregarding our values is not the answer to fixing them.

Racial Profiling

  • Core Message: The administration’s new policy recklessly promotes the practice of racial profiling, which violates human rights, as well as our core values of fairness and justice. It’s a flawed policing strategy that hurts communities, and most importantly, threatens our values.
  • Lead with values: Equal justice, fair treatment, freedom from discrimination, public safety and accountability.
  • Define the term and fully explain that racial profiling is based on stereotypes and not evidence in an individual case. Explain why racial profiling is not an effective policing tool and is a rights violation. Challenge the notion that racial profiling may be acceptable if it somehow keeps communities safe.

Too often, police departments use racial profiling, which is singling people out because of their race or accent, instead of based on evidence of wrongdoing. That’s against our national values, endangers our young people, and reduces public safety.

  • Explain why profiling harms us all, not just people of color or immigrants. This includes harm to our national values of fairness and equal justice, harm to public safety, and harm to anyone who is wrongly detained, arrested, or injured by law enforcement.

To work for all of us, our justice system depends on equal treatment and investigations based on evidence, not stereotypes or bias.

  • Move beyond denouncing racial profiling alone and also highlight positive solutions and alternatives that ensure equal justice and protect public safety like the End Racial Profiling Act and training for law enforcement agencies.

Racial profiling is an ineffective and harmful practice that undermines our basic values. Far too many immigration enforcement policies recklessly promote the practice. Any immigration policy reform needs to zero in on, and eliminate, this outdated and harmful practice.

We need to ensure that law enforcement officials are held to the constitutional standards we value as Americans—protecting public safety and the rights of all.

  • Offer multiple real-life examples. The idea of racial profiling is theoretical for some audiences. It’s important to provide multiple examples that include a variety of people who’ve been wrongly stopped.

Sample Language

Racial profiling harms all Americans. It violates our values of equal justice that we all depend on. It disrespects and discriminates against millions of young people and others around the country. It threatens public safety and can ruin people’s lives. It’s time to end racial profiling and focus law enforcement on evidence and public safety.

We need to be clear: it is unacceptable for those who enforce our laws to stereotype people based on the color of their skin, religion, or nation of origin. Law enforcement should act on facts and evidence, not racial bias. If one group can be singled out based on race or ethnicity or religion, none of us will be safe to enjoy the rights that the United States stands for.

We are stronger when we find ways to encourage participation and contribution, not ways to divide, exclude and discriminate. We have to condemn, in the strongest terms, those who engage in and encourage racist tactics.

Is it right for a military veteran to be asked for his papers just because he’s of Mexican heritage? Is it right for a mother of Asian or Latino background who speaks with an accent to get asked for her papers—right in front of her children—when her white friend next to her does not? Is it right that immigrants who work hard and aspire to be citizens live in daily fear of being stopped, arrested, and deported away from their loved ones? Is it right to create a culture of suspicion in an America that becomes more diverse every day? No. Anyone who engages in or encourages discrimination is flat out wrong. That’s not who we should be as a country.

When They See Us: Improving the Media’s Coverage of Black Men and Boys

This memo is intended to help journalists and media organizations produce fuller and more accurate reporting on African-American boys and men while reducing bias and stereotyping in their coverage. It is designed to inform coverage around the release of the new film, When They See Us, and the 30th Anniversary of the Central Park Five case in 1989.

The Central Park Five case involved the assault and rape of a white female jogger and the wrongful arrest and conviction of four African-American and one Latinx teenager—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise, and Raymond Santana—for the crime. The young men spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before being exonerated in 2002 when another man confessed to the crime.

Created by Ava DuVernay for Netflix, When They See Us, depicts the story of the Central Park Five and highlights how biased media coverage and harmful stereotypes contributed to the young men’s unjust incarceration.

Why Coverage Matters

Media coverage powerfully shapes the ability of individuals and communities to receive fair and equal justice. Politicians, prosecutors, police, juries, and everyday people are influenced not only by the facts reported in stories, but also by the images, labels, framing, and narratives that those stories convey. Decades of research reveal a persistent trend of distorted media depictions of Black men and boys that contribute to negative stereotypes, inequitable treatment, and unequal opportunity in areas ranging from employment, to education, policing and sentencing.

Research by The Opportunity Agenda1 reviewing hundreds of studies over several years found: that news coverage and other media depictions overrepresent Black boys and men in stories of violence, crime, and poverty; underreport important dimensions of Black males’ lives, such as fatherhood and work; and lack coverage of systemic barriers facing members of this group. The research further found that distorted media depictions can lead to negative attitudes toward African-American boys and men, such as increased public support for punitive approaches and tolerance for racial disparities. Subsequent research on depictions of African-American families2 similarly found that news and opinion media significantly overrepresent the association between Black families and criminality while significantly underrepresenting White families’ association with criminality.

Improving the Quality and Accuracy of Coverage

The release of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and the 30th anniversary of the Central Park Five case represent a moment for national reflection and coverage, not only on the show and wrongful convictions, but also on the societal and media biases that allowed that tragedy to happen. Based on our research and analysis and best practices from the journalism field, The Opportunity Agenda recommends six ways that news outlets and journalists can more accurately portray Black life and adhere to the media’s fundamental role in informing the public and furthering our democracy.

  1. Acknowledge and Review for Bias. Research shows that we all harbor subconscious or implicit racial and ethnic biases that do not necessarily align with our stated beliefs. Those biases can enter into reporting in the form of stereotyped vocabulary, images, framing, and story choice. Assumptions about people and neighborhoods that are “dangerous,” “violent,” or deserving/undeserving of attention are just a few examples. Reviewing story choices and content for tropes and stereotypes is important to quality reporting. The Perception Institute3 and Harvard’s Project Implicit4 provide two useful starting points for assessing unintentional bias.
  2. Look at the Big Picture. Monitor the amount of coverage, type of coverage, and the nature of the coverage that different communities, topics, and types of sources receive. Who is quoted as an expert? With whom is the reader or viewer supposed to identify? Are African-American individuals and communities featured, and if so in what roles? A quarterly review of stories in the aggregate can reveal and address trends of bias or stereotypes that are not readily apparent when consuming stories one at a time.
  3. Foster Diversity. One of the factors that media scholars see as contributing to distorted and incomplete coverage is the paucity of African-American media owners, producers, journalists and experts invited to contribute content. Encouraging diversity and inclusivity at every stage of the media content process will make it far more likely that varied experiences and fresh perspectives are incorporated.
  4. Cover Obstacles as Well as Outcomes. Research shows that stories about the unique and disparate obstacles facing African-Americans are few and far between—giving many news consumers the impression that these individuals simply lack the drive, honesty, or talent of their white counterparts. Provide audiences with the information and context to make informed decisions about causes and solutions. And before reporting on unequal outcomes in criminal justice, for example, consider explaining the documented inequities in policing, prosecution, and sentencing, and opportunities to re-enter society that African Americans frequently face.
  5. Capture the Missing Stories. In addition to stories about systemic obstacles and solutions, media analysts find a paucity of stories featuring African-American boys and men who are workers, problem solvers, innovators, or even users of technology. Those underreported stories can break through the clutter while avoiding the stereotypes found in a large volume of past reporting.
  6. Be Responsive and Accountable. In-person engagement and digital input from diverse communities are crucial to finding and telling fresh, accurate stories that reflect a diversity of lived realities. They are also critical reality checks on tired tropes or inaccurate storylines. Soliciting and listening to community and audience input is another crucial tool for full and accurate journalism.


As When They See Us makes clear, improving the quality of media coverage of Black men and boys is critical because the stakes are so high. Distorted media coverage and portrayals contribute to the perception that Black men and boys should be viewed as threats and burdens instead of valued and participating members of our society. Those perceptions play out in our justice systems, in employment, in education, and in other contexts that are crucial to opportunity, health, and happiness.

Through full and accurate reporting, journalists can counter these trends and be part of the solution. Just as individual stories must be fair and accurate, we hope that patterns of distorted reporting will trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices.

1 The Opportunity Agenda, Social Science Literature Review: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys (2011), https://bit.ly/2H551mm.
2 Travis L. Dixon, “A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families: Representations of Families, by Race, in News and Opinion Media.” (2017). https://bit.ly/2z9ST0Y.
3 https://perception.org.
4 https://implicit.harvard.edu.

When They See Us: Thirty Years Since the Central Park Five Case

Improving Media Coverage of Black Men and Boys

This memo provides tips and resources to people advocating for fuller and more accurate reporting on African-American boys, men, and families, and reducing bias and stereotyping in media coverage. It accompanies the release of the film When They See Us and marks 30 years since the Central Park Five case. The film and 30-year anniversary present important opportunities to advocate for improvements in reporting and mass communications, as well as equal justice.

The Central Park Five case involved the assault and rape of a White female jogger and the wrongful arrest and conviction of four African-American and one Latinx teenagers—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise, and Raymond Santana. The young men spent between six and 13 years in prison before being exonerated in 2002 when another man confessed to the crime.

Created by Ava DuVernay for Netflix, When They See Us depicts the story of the Central Park Five and highlights how biased media coverage and harmful stereotypes contributed to the young men’s arrest, public vilification, and unjust incarceration.

What’s at Stake?

As the film When They See Us makes clear, improving media portrayals and coverage of Black boys, men, and families is critical because the stakes are so high. Media coverage powerfully shapes the ability of individuals and communities to receive fair and equal justice. Politicians, prosecutors, police, juries, and everyday people are influenced not only by the facts reported in stories, but also by the images, labels, framing, and narratives that those stories convey.

A large body of research (discussed later in this memo) finds a persistent trend of distorted media depictions of Black men and boys that contributes to negative stereotypes, inequitable treatment, and unequal opportunity in areas ranging from employment, to education, to policing and sentencing.

Help Improve Media Coverage

There is much that we can do together to improve media coverage of African-American boys and men, as well as of other communities that are often marginalized or caricatured in media coverage. Here are six tips for making a difference:

  1. Call for Full and Accurate Reporting. Most journalists are wary of demands for positive or negative coverage, which they see as conflicting with their proper role. But most aspire to report on stories fairly, accurately, and without bias. Most news outlets, moreover, seek to report fully on the issues, communities, and people whom they cover, especially across multiple stories.In pushing for improved reporting, focus on a standard of full and accurate reporting. For example, the American Society of News Editors Statement of Principles states that “[g]ood faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.” Remind editors and producers that demands for fair presentation, elimination of bias, accuracy and context are, in fact, demands that they live up to their own articulated values.
  2. Monitor and Discuss Coverage Over Time. Identify systemic blind spots and distortions as well as problematic stories, images, and language. While individual problem stories should be called out, patterns of bias or distortion are easiest to see when looking at multiple stories over time. Repetition of tropes and stereotypes also causes the greatest harm. Review multiple stories with an eye toward trends like over-association with violence, descriptions of neighborhoods and communities, and the context that is or is not provided. Get specific about different outlets and journalists, noting differences in their reporting.
  3. Highlight the Research. Many media gatekeepers are still unaware of the large body of research on media coverage trends. In advocating for improved local coverage, combine your own specific observations with the many research findings on distorted coverage and its harmful effects. A number of organizations regularly produce or commission research on media depictions and other industry metrics, including The Opportunity Agenda; the American Society of News Editors; the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy; and the Columbia Journalism Review.
  4. Point to Positive Examples. Be ready with real-world examples of full and accurate coverage that can serve as positive examples to be emulated. In addition to pointing out distortions and problematic trends, it’s important to identify and—where appropriate—to praise exemplary coverage and best practices. Many outlets track positive and negative social media comments, and all take note of direct audience feedback. In addition, providing positive examples from their peer institutions can both provide practical guidance and spark friendly competition from other outlets.
  5. Prioritize Decisionmakers. Engage editors, producers, corporate ownership, and advertisers who have the power to make systemic changes. While news ombudspersons and community liaisons can be a good starting point, it’s frequently necessary to demand meetings and action from more powerful decisionmakers and gatekeepers. The successful campaigns to oust biased media figures like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs by targeting their advertisers show that mass campaigns to demand fair reporting can be successful.
  6. Demand Diversity. Greater diversity in all roles within news organizations and companies helps to foster fuller and more nuanced coverage and reduce stereotyping. Five decades ago, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to examine the cause of racial strife in America’s cities, concluded that the lack of diversity in newsrooms was partly responsible for the pernicious stereotypes, neglect, and discrimination that led to the era’s urban uprisings: the Commission declared that “the journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, and promoting Negroes.” It added that “the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”1 Yet, in 2017, for example, only 16.6% of journalists at daily newspapers were people of color, whereas the U.S. population was more than 37% non-white. Representation in broadcast media is similarly abysmal, and diversity of media ownership is still worse.

Pressing for greater diversity throughout the industry, though a tough and lengthy slog, is crucial to long-term improvement of coverage. One step is demanding that media organization make public the (anonymous) demographic breakdowns of staff and leadership that most are already required to collect under federal law. Transparency and accountability regarding proactive diversity efforts are crucial, as is advocating greater attention to this issue by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the industry.

Sample Messages to Media Decisionmakers

In order to deliver a consistent, well-framed message, we recommend structuring opening messages in terms of Value, Problem, Solution, Action. In particular, leading with shared values instead of dry facts or hot rhetoric helps start a conversation and provides a foundation to transition into more complex messages.


Principles of accuracy, impartiality, and fair play are critical. They are also core to the journalism profession. The American Society of News Editors’ Statement of Principles, for example, requires that “[e]very effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.”


But a decade of research2 shows that too many news organizations are falling short of that standard when it comes to coverage of African-American men and boys. Trends include over-representing Black males in stories about crime, violence, and poverty— far beyond their actual association with those problems—and under-representation in their roles as fathers, workers, and problem solvers. Those patterns paint a picture of Black males that is inaccurate, biased, and harmful, contributing to racial stereotypes, discrimination, and other barriers.


Journalists and editors must strive for greater intentionality, accuracy and authenticity in how they are depicting the people featured in their coverage. They should provide information not only on the stories of individuals, but also on the systems that these individuals have – or don’t have – access to. Just as individual stories must be fair and accurate, patterns of distorted reporting must trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices. Greater in-depth reporting on systemic obstacles, prevention, and success stories are notably missing and important.


Contact journalists and editorial boards and push them to learn more about how media portrayals impact Black male outcomes. Tell them that they should work to provide unbiased representation of the stories they cover. Watch When They See Us and have a dialogue about how the media portrayals then, and now, are impacting perceptions of Black men and boys such as the Central Park 5.


Our country’s population is becoming increasingly diverse. If broadcasters want to compete for audiences in a more diverse America, their programming has to both reflect and respect our nation’s diverse communities; their hopes, aspirations, struggles, and experiences.


After studying programming over many months, we’re not seeing adequately representative depictions of African-American men and boys. Black male characters can tend to be more often depicted engaging in anti-social, dysfunctional, and violent behavior than other groups, and more so than in reality as well. That’s irresponsible and harmful, and it’s also bad business for any network struggling to build an audience in the 21st century.


Balance and fairness are critical in representation of all people, most primarily in how people of color, particularly Black men and boys, are depicted. Show the spectrum and fullness of the lives of Black males, just as is done with White characters.


Call on networks to update Broadcast Standards and Practices systems to periodically review, identify, and avoid harmful stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals as themes in programming.

The Research and the Central Park Five

Stereotypes and popular myths. Distorted media coverage and portrayals have contributed to the perception that Black men and boys should be viewed as threats and sources of violence. Our research shows that Black men and boys are more likely to be depicted as threatening, and news outlets are more likely to depict Black men and boys as committing crimes when compared to their arrest rates. These media stories contribute the myth of Black criminality contrary to what research shows.

For example, in 1989, the defendants in the Central Park 5 case were routinely labeled “a wolf pack” and worse. Donald Trump took out newspaper ads calling for restoration of the death penalty. And then-mayor Ed Koch routinely referred to the young men as “monsters.” The media picked up these examples, and others, countless times.

Systemic bias in the criminal system. As noted in our report on the topic, the “media world can be mistaken for the real world.”3 Distorted media coverage contributes to systemic bias. For example, when members of the public serve on juries, where they are expected to make objective judgments about the quality of evidence, media stories about Black men and boys as threatening criminals inform their perceptions of Black men and boys who are accused of crime, even when there is evidence of injustice in their prosecutions. Media stories shape popular perception and contribute to implicit biases that suggest that White people are more likely to be innocent victims and Black people are more likely to be guilty of crimes. These perceptions help to explain the persistent racial disparities in all areas of the criminal system, including unjust policing, overzealous prosecution, and harsh sentencing practices.

Justifying inequality. Unfair media coverage may be used as an excuse for systemic inequality in our criminal justice system. Some commentators may claim that racial disparities are justified and are a natural consequence because they believe that Black men and boys are inherently more criminal. The racial disparities appear inevitable and a likely consequence of inferiority—rather than the result of historic inequality in this country— because biased media coverage is consistent with ensuing and persistent racial bias.

This justification was especially pronounced in the coverage of the Central Park 5 case, such as in Pete Hamill’s April 23, 1989 piece in the NY Post, which painted a menacing backdrop that would color the coverage of the defendants, and the case, to come:

They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers … They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor.


As When They See Us makes clear, improving the quality of media coverage of Black men and boys is critical because the stakes are so high. Distorted media coverage and portrayals contribute to the perception that Black men and boys should be viewed as threats and burdens instead of valued and participating members of our society. Those perceptions play out in our justice systems, in employment, in education, and in other contexts that are crucial to opportunity, health, and happiness.

Through full and accurate reporting, journalists can counter these trends and be part of the solution. Just as individual stories must be fair and accurate, we hope that patterns of distorted reporting will trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices.

1 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968).
2 Media Portrayals and Black Male Outcomes: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys
3 Black Men Report at 14.

Talking About Criminal Justice Reform After The First Step Act


This memo offers advice for promoting significant, principled criminal justice reform after Senate passage of The First Step Act. It is intended to aid proponents of major reform while contributing to sustained narrative change.

Our system of criminal justice should uphold the values of fairness, equal justice, and accountability; promote the safety of all communities; and help to prevent harm. Yet we are, unfortunately, far from that vision in our country today. Despite meaningful progress in recent years, we remain saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources, disrupts communities, and devalues rehabilitation. Racial, economic, and other biases impede fair decision making and outcomes. And the system too often disserves people and communities coping with violence and trauma, as well as those accused and convicted of crime, while failing to recognize that these are often the same communities.

The First Step Act, as passed by the U.S. Senate, includes modest positive reforms while leaving many people behind and incorporating problematic new elements. This memo suggests ways of talking about continued work toward transformative and genuine reform—whatever one’s position on the details of this legislation—as the act moves to the House.


-Artwork by Alixa Garcia

1. Lead with Values, such as Equal Justice, Due Process, and Community Safety.

Research and experience show that it is more effective to lead with shared values in advocating for justice reform than policy details, statistics, or political rhetoric. Audiences are more open to hearing messages that are framed in terms of values that they share with the speaker.

Highlight how positive justice reform will uphold our society’s commitment to Equal Justice, Fairness, and Due Process. Explain that reforms to the current system can achieve true Community Safety. Emphasize Preventing Harm and ensuring Accountability (which is different from retribution). Talk about how each of us probably can relate to the sentiment that one minor offense or infraction should not be Life Defining. And for audiences that prioritize cost or recidivism concerns, lift up the Pragmatism of using prevention and treatment over incarceration and obstacles to reentry.

2. Remember your Audience.

A shared narrative must persuade the undecided, mobilize the base, and minimize the influence of opponents. For specific messaging, keep your intended audience in mind, including their level of familiarity with the issues and particular priorities—be they safety, racial equity, equal justice, cost, faith, libertarian, or other. In every situation, use language that is accessible to your audience.

  • Avoid jargon and unnecessarily technical language.
  • Steer clear of abbreviations, shorthand terms, and acronyms. Say the full names of relevant organizations, laws, and legal provisions to keep all members of your audience engaged.
  • Always refrain from using dehumanizing language, such as “felon,” “offender,” or “criminal” – instead use, “(formerly) incarcerated people”.
  • Explain legal terms in plain English.

3. Lift up the Principles underlying the Act’s Positive Provisions while Discussing the Gaps and Need for Further Action.

Whether or not one supports the act as a whole, its passage by a wide bi-partisan margin can and should represent a sea change in how our nation thinks, talks, and acts on criminal justice issues. Lift up and reinforce this new direction while discussing the importance of continued action and the need to pressure legislators to work on more comprehensive reform—such as repealing mandatory minimum sentences across the board and making all sentencing reform apply retroactively to people who are unfairly incarcerated today. Emphasize that we must do more to promote prevention and alternatives to incarceration.

4. Talk about Racial Bias and other Forms of Unequal Justice.

A large body of research demonstrates the many ways in which aspects of the criminal justice system result in discrimination against people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people, among others. And a majority of Americans agree that the system is often biased in harmful ways. It’s important to talk about those biases—leading with values and explaining how they affect all of us and prevent us from achieving our full potential as a country. Call out the ways that The First Step Act fails to address those problems. And remind your audience of the need for additional legislation that will bring about true Equal Justice and Racial Equity in the system.

5. Emphasize Solutions

While a majority of Americans support moving away from harsh sentences, many are unaware of alternatives to incarceration and other reform solutions. Lifting up concrete approaches that are working around the country—such as mental health and addiction treatment, restorative justice, bail reform, and ending mandatory minimum sentences—gives undecided audiences confidence that a new direction is the smart thing as well as the right thing.

6. Prioritize the Voices and Leadership of those Directly Affected

People directly affected by the justice system—including formerly incarcerated Americans, family members, and survivors of violence and trauma—are lifting their voices to articulate a new vision of fairness, safety, and accountability. It’s important to lift up their voices and leadership as people who speak from personal experience and have fresh, practical solutions to offer.

Messaging Tips:
Value, Problem, Solution & Action (VPSA).

Lead with VALUES. Shared values help audiences hear messages more effectively than do dry facts or emotional rhetoric.

  • We all want to be treated with dignity and respect, and live in safe communities. Our criminal justice policies should reflect that.

Introduce the PROBLEM. Frame problems as a threat to your vision and values. This is the place to pull out stories and statistics that are likely to resonate with the target audience.

  • But we are currently saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts families and communities.

Pivot quickly to SOLUTIONS. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation. Assign responsibility—who can enact this solution?

  • We need true, comprehensive criminal justice reform aimed at righting the problems and inequities created by our current criminal justice system to provide transformative, lasting change.

Assign an ACTION.

  • Urge your legislators to deliver on the promise of genuine and meaningful reform to make our communities safer and make our criminal justice system more just.

Sample VPSA Message:


We all want a justice system that upholds the values of equal justice, fairness, and accountability; keeps all communities safe; and helps prevent harm.


But our current bloated and outdated system is failing us. Legislative reforms, including those incorporated into The First Step Act, that perpetuate the damage done to our communities are not the answer. Algorithms for early release that are based on biased assumptions will continue and increase current systemic inequities. The human and financial costs to these racist, sexist, transphobic, and ableist systems are staggering. Approaches that we know prevent crime – like drug treatment, job training, and an effective public education system – are ignored in favor of short-term solutions. We can do better.


It’s time to implement what experience tells us are effective approaches that ensure meaningful reform and promote genuine community safety. An important first step is broadening access to early release programs.


Contact your senators to push for meaningful criminal justice reform legislation that includes these commonsense reforms.

Additional Resources:

Californians & Criminal Justice Reform

The Opportunity Agenda and the ACLU of California engaged in a collaborative initiative to improve the way social justice practitioners, the media, and others talk about California’s justice system. The goal of this research was to explore the stories, issues, and frames that bring “persuadables” in, turn them off, and/or soften them for future criminal justice reform work in the state. It also aims to equip “reform evangelists” with smarter and stickier messages that could influence how the media reports criminal justice issues, how pop culture icons engage their audiences, and, ultimately, how policymakers legislate and how people vote on public policy solutions.

Messaging Recommendations

  1. Start messages with a broader vision of what the criminal justice system should do and what values it should uphold – prevent harm, treat people fairly, uphold equal justice – then move into details.
  2. Leverage audiences’ interest in rehabilitation over punishment by naming specific solutions and alternatives. Key audiences react favorably to the mention of drug treatment programs and mental health support specifically.
  3. More audiences believe that the system treats people unequally than believe it treats people unfairly. Provide specific examples of how the system is unfair.
  4. Show the mechanisms that lead to unequal justice and highlight how they are unfair: over-policing affects some communities more than others, implicit bias in the system harms people of color, and policies like the cash bail system link chances of freedom to money accessibility.
  5. Increase audiences’ understanding of the cash bail system. It’s a policy that most audiences don’t have much awareness about, yet represents the unfairness of the criminal justice system that they want to fix.
  6. When addressing inequality, talk specifically about who is most effected, including African American and Latino men. This information inspires the base toward action and does not decrease support from persuadable audiences.

Top Messages

We Can Do Better

Our criminal justice system should reflect certain important values: hold people accountable, keep people safe, treat people fairly and with dignity, and prevent harm whenever possible. Our current bloated and outdated system is failing us. We are locking people up when research and experience shows us there are better approaches. We are spending far too much money on prisons while programs that we know prevent crime – like drug treatment, job training, and an effective public education system – languish. We can do better.

Equal Justice

Our justice system should keep all communities safe, prevent harm, and uphold the values of fairness and accountability. But too often, racial bias in policing and prosecution results in longer, harsher, and unnecessary incarceration of Latinx and Black Americans.

We know from experience around the country that improved training and alternatives to incarceration, like drug treatment and mental health services, improve community safety and equal justice. We’re calling on local prosecutors, police departments, and lawmakers to adopt those best practices.

Celebrity Influencer

Prosecutors and public defenders, judges and law enforcement, teachers and community leaders, artists and organizers all have to come together and start to do things differently in this country if we’re serious about ending mass incarceration. We can’t afford to keep running a system that takes broken people and then breaks them further. We can’t tolerate a system that destroys so many lives and so many communities. People deserve a path to redemption that includes access to jobs, education, housing, credit, and all the components of a better life. They also deserve to fully participate in our democracy, including the right to vote.

For more information about this project, please download a PDF version of this resource.

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