Leah Christiani, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
I earned my Ph.D. (2020) and M.A. (2017) in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on American politics and political methodology. Now, I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, and a Faculty Affiliate with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program. My research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity, and identity in the U.S. context.
Race, Ethnicity and Politics
Policing, Surveillance, Vigilance
Countries of Interest
A frequently proposed "solution" to the problem of racially targeted policing is to diversify the leadership of a police department, such as instate a Black police chief. However, little is known about how and when such changes may alter policing outcomes. Here, we question whether this descriptive representation leads to a reduction in racial disparities in policing outcomes and how the political and social context may condition that relationship – captured by why a transition took place. To test this, we turn to traffic stop data from nine agencies in Illinois that had variation in chief race between 2004 and 2018. We find that who heads a police department – and why they were appointed (i.e., transition type) – is linked to search rates following a traffic stop, which has implications for work on race and policing, descriptive representation, and local politics.
Harsh, highly intrusive, personal contact with the criminal justice system has been shown to politically demobilize, but it is unclear whether less intrusive forms of police contact have any political effects. As the modal type of involuntary police-citizen contact is less invasive and more routine (e.g., a traffic stop), it is critical to understand the ramifications of lighter forms of contact. We argue that, unlike harsh police contact, light, personal, police contact can mobilize individuals, under certain circumstances. When a negative encounter with the police — even if it is minor — runs counter to prior expectations, people experiencing the contact are mobilized to take political action. Using three years of observational data and an original survey experiment, we demonstrate that individuals who receive tickets or are stopped by the police are more likely to participate in politics. These effects are most pronounced for individuals with positive evaluations of the police, often white respondents.
To contain the spread of COVID-19, experts emphasize the importance of wearing masks. Unfortunately, this practice may put black people at elevated risk for being seen as potential threats by some Americans. In this study, we evaluate whether and how different types of masks affect perceptions of black and white male models. We find that non-black respondents perceive a black male model as more threatening and less trustworthy when he is wearing a bandana or a cloth mask than when he is not wearing his face covering—especially those respondents who score above average in racial resentment, a common measure of racial bias. When he is wearing a surgical mask, however, they do not perceive him as more threatening or less trustworthy. Further, it is not that non-black respondents find bandana and cloth masks problematic in general. In fact, the white model in our study is perceived more positively when he is wearing all types of face coverings. Although mandated mask wearing is an ostensibly race-neutral policy, our findings demonstrate the potential implications are not.
Evidence has emerged demonstrating that whites no longer reject negative, explicit racial appeals as they had in the past. This seeming reversal of the traditional logic of the powerlessness of explicit appeals raises the question: Why are explicit racial appeals accepted sometimes but rejected at other times? Here, I test whether the relative acceptance of negative, explicit racial appeals depends on whites’ feelings of threat using a two-wave survey experiment that manipulates participants’ feelings of threat, and then examines their responses to an overtly racist political appeal. I find that when whites feel threatened, they are more willing to approve of and agree with a negative, explicit racial appeal disparaging African Americans—and express willingness to vote for the candidate who made the explicit racial appeal.
Racial disparities in citizen interactions with police are ubiquitous concerns in American communities. What difference does electoral representation make? We demonstrate that black descriptive representation in local government affects police activity and scrutiny in a given community. We use a new dataset comprised of over 79 municipal police departments spanning 6 states, based on tens of millions of individual-level traffic stops. In cities and towns with majority-black city councils, traffic stops are less likely to result in a search. This decline in search rates affects both white and black drivers, though the decline is larger for black drivers. Even after controlling for socioeconomic factors, segregation, and crime rates, descriptive representation still matters. A city council composed of a majority of black members is associated with important differences in policing, affecting both white and black residents.
Racial disparities in traffic stop outcomes are widespread and well documented. Less well understood is how racial disparities may be amplified or muted in different contexts. Here we focus on one such situational factor: whether the initial traffic stop was related to a traffic safety violation or a (broadly defined) investigatory purpose. This is a salient contextual characteristic as stop type relates to different levels of assumed discretion and purpose. While all traffic stops involve some officer discretion, investigatory stops are more easily used as justifications to conduct a search based on an officer's diffuse suspicion; traffic safety stops are more often just what they seem. Using millions of traffic stops from several states, we show that black male drivers are more likely to be searched and less likely to be found with contraband and that this relationship is amplified where the initial stop purpose is investigatory. One implication of this is that one path to alleviating disparities in traffic stops for agencies is emphasizing traffic safety, rather than using stops as a supplemental investigatory tool.
Evidence that racial minorities are targeted for searches during police traffic stops is widespread, but observed differences in outcomes following a traffic stop between white drivers and people of color could potentially be due to factors correlated with driver race. Using a unique dataset recording over 5 million traffic stops from 90 municipal police departments, we control for and evaluate alternative explanations for why a driver may be searched. These include: (1) the context of the stop itself, (2) the characteristics of the police department including the race of the police chief, and (3) demographic and racial composition of the municipality within which the stop occurs. We find that the driver's race remains a robust predictor: black male drivers are consistently subjected to more intensive police scrutiny than white drivers. Additionally, we find that all drivers are less likely to be subject to highly discretionary searches if the police chief is black. Together, these findings indicate that race matters in multiple and varied ways for policing outcomes.
We investigate a possible linkage between municipal reliance on fines, fees, and forfeitures as a revenue source and policing behavior. With a dataset of four million traffic stops made by North Carolina municipalities, we demonstrate that a regular reliance on fines, fees, and forfeitures has powerful, predictable, and racially distinct impacts on black and white drivers, and that fiscal stress exacerbates these differences. A greater regular reliance on fines, fees, and forfeitures is linked to a decrease in the probability of white, but not black, drivers being searched; and increased odds of finding contraband among those white drivers who are searched, but no such change for black drivers. We validate the North Carolina tests with aggregate analyses of municipalities across four states.
Identity-based stereotyping often operates on perceptions about the intersection of multiple identities. Intersectional stereotyping predicts that certain combinations of attributes lend themselves more readily to perceived suspicion than others. In this paper, I test the way that suspicion-evoking stereotypes affect police-citizen interactions. Through the use of traffic stop data from Illinois spanning ten years and amounting to more than 20 million observations, I am able to produce accurate estimates for the relative degree of targeting that individual drivers face based on their racial, gender, age, and class-based perceived identities. Overall, I find both theoretical and methodological support for the necessity of intersectional analyses of identity-based profiling.
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