Racial Prejudice in the Criminal Justice System

          In spite of all the progress that has been made during the last several decades in the area of race relations in the United States, a recent study suggests that many white Americans still hold negative views about blacks. 

          The Associated Press, in conjunction with Yahoo News and the Political Science Department at Stanford University, conducted a poll about racial prejudice among white Americans and its effect upon the (yet undecided) presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.  Although the poll's findings were examined with an eye towards the upcoming election, some of its findings, if valid, would seem to have profound implications for the day-to-day workings of the American criminal justice system as well.

          Some of the poll's findings were that:

  • 40% of all white Americans hold at least a partially-negative view toward blacks;
  • When given a choice among several positive and negative adjectives that might describe black people, 20% of all whites said that the word "violent" strongly applied, 29% agreed with the adjective "complaining," 22% agreed with the word "boastful," 13% "lazy," and 11% "irresponsible;"
  • When asked about positive adjectives, white people were more likely to equivocate than to choose a positive adjective to describe blacks;
  • Among white Democrats, one-third picked a negative adjective to describe black people;
  • Although about 20% of independent voters described blacks as "smart" or "intelligent," more than one-third picked the adjective "complaining" and 24% described blacks as "violent."
  • Almost four in ten white independent voters agreed that blacks would be better off if they tried harder.
  • The survey also used images of black and white faces to measure prejudices that are so deeply ingrained that many whites may not realize they have them.  That particular test revealed that more than half of whites have more negative feelings towards black people than they do towards white people.

          During the past eighteen years that I have been a practicing criminal defense lawyer, I have represented many black people who have been charged with such violent crimes as battery, aggravated battery, assault, aggravated assault, manslaughter, and murder.  It is sobering indeed to think that some of the jurors in those cases believed that my clients were violent (and therefore guilty??) before they knew anything at all about either the particular client or the facts of his particular case.

          Also, given the fact that many of those who work in the criminal justice system are themselves white, one must wonder whether at least some white judges, some white prosecutors, and yes, even some white defense lawyers, hold racially-biased attitudes towards those black individuals who stand accused of committing crimes.

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