Part I of this series summarizes events giving rise to the march and protest last week in Jena, Louisiana. The protest was motivated largely by a shared sense that events in Jena reveal race-based disparities in our criminal justice system and constitute the visible tip of a largely ignored iceberg of racial disparities throughout the criminal-law system (and perhaps beyond).
This post briefly highlights some evidence to suggest that, indeed, there are immense disparities beneath the surface, of which the “Jena 6” may constitute only a tiny, visible tip. Below, we excerpt portions of a recent Newsweek interview by Eve Conant of David Jacobs about his recent research finding significant racial disparities in U.S. execution rates. We begin, however, with a reprise of an excerpt from a previous post by Situationist contributors Jon Hanson & Michael McCann entitled “Black History is Now.”
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[To many, the events in Jena suggest that despite claims of progress, this country has not come so far after all. S]ocial scientists have amassed [a great deal of evidence] indicating the continued influence of robust race-based stereotypes and prejudices. Worse still, the evidence is that those beliefs and feelings . . . are ubiquitous. And here may be the worst part: whatever our conscious or explicit attitudes and intentions, today’s social psychologists have discovered a set of biases that operate beneath the radar of those salient, accessible, and misleading cognitive features.
Such attitudes, sometimes called “implicit associations,” have been uncovered, for instance, through an internet-based experiment called the implicit association test (or IAT) . . . . (Among others, two Contributors to The Situationist, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nozek, have been integral in developing the methodology and analyzing the meaning of its results. And among legal scholars, two other Contributors to The Situationist, Jerry Kang and Linda Hamilton Krieger, have been especially active in exploring the possible implications of those results for particular areas of law.)
In the Race IAT, subjects take a timed test in which they are shown a computer screen and asked to match positive words (love, wonderful, peace) or negative words (evil, nasty, failure) with faces of African-Americans or Whites. Very roughly, subjects who take less time to link positive words with Whites and more time to link positive words with Blacks—or who are quicker at connecting negative words with Blacks and slower at connecting negative words with Whites—demonstrate an implicit bias for white faces or against Blacks. You can take the test yourself by clicking here. Millions of people have. And, among other findings, the IAT test reveals that approximately three-quarters of White subjects and half of the Black subjects show such a bias. . . .
But wait a minute. If the bias is only implicit and subconscious, how important can it be? Here, too, the news is bad. Although the research is by now piled high and the findings, at time complex, the results can be fairly summarized as follows: implicit bias influences behavior in the way that we assume (often incorrectly) explicit attitudes do. Put differently, the “attitudes” that we do not perceive in ourselves are often more powerful in shaping our conduct than are the attitudes of which we are conscious — situation eclipses disposition.
Other research illustrates that the distinctions made among various shades of “gray”. . . have important behavioral consequences for adults. For instance, Elizabeth Klonoff and Hope Landrine‘s study “Is Skin Color a Marker for Racial Discrimination” found that “dark-skinned Blacks were 11 times more likely to experience frequent racial discrimination than their light-skinned counterparts.” Similarly, Rodolfo Espino and Michael M. Franz‘s study “Latino Phenotypic Discrimination Revisited: The Impact of Skin Color on Occupational Status” finds that “dark-skinned Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans continue to face higher levels of discrimination in the labor market.”
One recent, remarkable study strikes us as particularly revealing regarding the life-and-death significance of “blackness.” Jennifer Eberhardt, Paul Davies, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson, found a disturbing correlation between how prototypically “black” a death-eligible criminal defendant was and whether that defendant was sentenced to death. Eberhardt’s website summarizes the research this way:
The vast majority of studies designed to examine the influence of race in capital punishment have found that murderers of White victims are much more likely than murderers of Black victims to be sentenced to death. Drawing from an extensive database compiled by David Baldus, she and her colleagues obtained the photographs of Black defendants who were death eligible in Philadelphia from 1979 to 1999. She presented the faces of Black defendants who had killed White victims to naive participants (who did not know that the photographs depicted convicted murders) and asked them to rate each face on how stereotypically Black it appeared. The effect of stereotypicality was clear. Whereas only 24% of the defendants rated as less stereotypically Black received a death sentence, 58% of the defendants rated as more stereotypically Black received a death sentence. This stereotypicality effect was significant even when controlling for defendant attractiveness and the most significant non-racial factors known to influence sentencing (i.e., aggravating or mitigating circumstances, murder severity, defendant socioeconomic status, and victim socioeconomic status).
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To paraphrase Cornell West, race still matters and history is a fundamental lens for seeing what we would otherwise like to deny. In West’s words, “[a] fully functional multiracial society cannot be achieved without a sense of history and open, honest dialogue.” . . . .
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Related to this discussion are findings from a recent study co-authored by David Jacobs, a sociologist and political scientist at Ohio State University, who examined whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the death penalty or life in prison. The study appeared in the August issue of the American Sociological Review and Newsweek recently interviewed Jacobs about it. We excerpt portion of the interview below.
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Is American justice colorblind? A new study finds that blacks on death row convicted of killing whites are more likely to be executed than whites who kill minorities. It also concludes that blacks who kill other minorities are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites. The authors of the report say their findings raise serious doubts about claims that the U.S. criminal justice system is colorblind.
Appearing in the August issue of American Sociological Review, the report claims to be the first of its kind to study whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the ultimate punishment. The study examined outcomes of 1,560 people sentenced to death in 16 states between 1972 and 2002. NEWSWEEK’s Eve Conant spoke to David Jacobs, coauthor of the study and a professor of sociology and political science at Ohio State University.
NEWSWEEK: Why did you do this study?
David Jacobs: Because the role of race is a fundamental question about the death penalty. There was a lot of research, mostly on one or two Southern states, which found that if an African-American killed a white, that they’d be more likely to get the death penalty. But you have to remember that only about 10 percent of those who get the death sentence actually get executed. Most people wind up leaving death row and going back to prison where they serve long sentences. But we really didn’t know much about what happened to offenders after they were sentenced to death and that’s what’s unique about this study. We didn’t know the factors that cause executions. There have been a few studies, but we didn’t know if a black or Hispanic who kills a white person would be more likely to be executed. We knew it was more likely that these offenders would get the death sentence. But we didn’t know if they were more likely to actually get executed.
NEWSWEEK: So what did you find?
David Jacobs: Holding a whole bunch of stuff constant, including several political variables, we found that if a black person killed a white person they were more likely to get executed. If a Hispanic killed a white person they were also more likely, but this probability wasn’t quite as strong. There is more than a twofold greater risk that an African-American who killed a white will be executed than a white person who kills a nonwhite victim. A Hispanic is at least 1.4 times more likely to be executed if such an offender kills a white. Both findings are statistically significant. Also, the findings indicate that blacks who kill nonwhites are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites, which shows that the postsentencing capital-punishment process continues to place greater value on white lives.
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There are many thoughtful and provocative commentaries on the Jena 6. We found particularly interesting an article entitled “Awakening?” in Black Entertainment News which asks “Could the rally in the tiny town of Jena, La., awaken the Black community—and Black youths in particular—to a new round of activism in the same way that young civil rights leaders of the 1960s joined in the fight against segregation?” Mirian Wright Edlemen wrote an editorial in which she argued: “The recent conviction of Black high school student Mychal Bell in the small rural town of Jena, Louisiana, demonstrates why the struggle for civil rights and equal justice must continue with renewed vigor.”
Perhaps the article that most closely tracks the themes of The Situationist and the evidence reviewed above is one written by Gary Younge, “Jena is America,” in which he argues that
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“[t]hese incidents have turned Jena into a national symbol of racial injustice. As such it is both a potent emblem and a convenient whipping boy. Potent because it shines a spotlight on how race and class conspire to deny black people equality before the law. According to the Justice Department, blacks are almost three times as likely as whites to have their cars searched when they are pulled over and more than twice as likely to be arrested. They are more than five times as likely as whites to be sent to jail and are sentenced to 20 percent longer jail time. . . .
Convenient because it allows the rest of the nation to dismiss the incidents as the work of Southern redneck backwoodsmen without addressing the systemic national failures it showcases. According to the Sentencing Project, the ten states with the highest discrepancy between black and white incarceration rates include Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York and none from the South. What took place in Jena is not aberrant; it’s consistent. The details are a local disgrace. The broader themes are a national scandal. . . .
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From NPR’s Tell Me More, you can listen to the story “Jena Six Brings Youth, Elders Together in Protest.” Finally, James Peterson on BlackProf offers a thoughtful analysis in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”