News Stories

Looking Too Black

Black people complain of being of being stopped for "DWB" (driving while black). Law enforcement people dispute these claims. But it turns out that when the victims are white, jurors are more likely to hand down death sentences to defendants with stereotypically black features.

Cornell law Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson is the first researcher to examine whether death sentences are influenced by juries' perceptions of black defendants' features. She obtained photographs of 44 black, male defendants convicted of murdering whites between 1979 and 1999 in Pennsylvania, a state that has the death penalty. Stanford undergraduates of various ethnicities were shown the photographs and asked to report whether the men's appearance seemed stereotypically black on a scale of 1 to 11. They were told they could base their judgments on any number of features, including hair texture, skin tone and shape of lips and noses. They were NOT told that the men had been convicted of murder.

She then compared these responses with the actual sentences received by the defendants in the photographs, to determine whether perceptions of stereotypical racial features influenced death-penalty decisions. The results showed that 58% percent of the convicts rated as having stereotypically black features had been sentenced to death. In contrast, only 24% percent of those convicts with more "white" features had received death sentences.

However, the correlation between stereotypically black features and death sentences emerged only in cases involving white victims. Despite the fact that psychopaths come in all different colors, in instances of black-on-black homicide, there was no correlation between the perceived blackness of a defendant's features and his likelihood of being sentenced to death.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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