Playing the race card in the post-Willie Horton era The impact of racialized code words on support for punitive crime policy

Jon Hurwitz, Mark Peffley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

241 Scopus citations


To date, little is known about the precise impact of racially coded words and phrases. Instead, most of what we know about racialized messages comes from studies that focus on pictorial racial cues (for example, the infamous "Willie Horton" ad) or on messages with an extensive textual narrative that is laced with implicit racial cues. Because in a "post-Horton" era strategic use of racially coded words will often be far more subtle than those explored in past studies, we investigate the power of a single phrase believed by many to carry strong racial connotations: "inner city." We do so by embedding an experiment in a national survey of whites, where a random half of respondents was asked whether they support spending money for prisons (versus antipoverty programs) to lock up "violent criminals," while the other half was asked about "violent inner city criminals." Consistent with the literature on issue framing, we find that whites' racial attitudes (for example, racial stereotypes) were much more important in shaping preferences for punitive policies when they receive the racially coded, "inner city" question. Our results demonstrate how easy it is to continue "playing the race card" in the post-Willie Horton era, as well as some of the limits of such framing effects among whites with more positive racial attitudes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-112
Number of pages14
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2005

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The order of the authors’ names is alphabetical. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9906346. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors would like to thank Nicholas Valentino and David Barker for helpful comments on an earlier draft. Address correspondence to Mark Peffley; e-mail:

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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