Civil Rights

What we see, when we imagine a criminal

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Now, I want you to picture a law-abiding citizen. What does that person look like?

I’ve taught undergraduate classes on race and crime at two top-ranked universities. Each semester, I have my students do this exercise and then I collect their anonymous responses. Despite teaching to a diverse group of educated young people, the reactions to the assignment are stereotypically patterned. The “criminal” is most frequently described as being a young, black, male. Even if my students are politically correct enough to refrain from remarking on the particular race of the person they imagined, the “criminal” is still described in “dark” places, with “dark” features (e.g., eyes or hair), and “dark” clothing.

{mosads}On the other hand, the “law abiding citizen” is most frequently described as being an old, white, woman. Again, even if the student omits the race of the “law abiding citizen,” this person is still described in “light” places, with “light” features (e.g. white teeth) , and “light” clothing (e.g. a sundress).

These stereotypes exist, whether we admit to them or not. Naturally, people will develop heuristics based on the information they are exposed to. The reason why young, black, men are stereotyped as criminals is because our criminal justice system has perpetually suffered from disproportionate minority contact and sentencing. This means that although the likelihood of engaging in crime is similar across different races, young people of color are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and incarcerated based solely on their skin hue.

This is why New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was deemed unconstitutional. At the time of the ruling, being a young black or Hispanic man was enough to give police “reasonable suspicion” for a pat down search. Not only was the application of the stop-and-frisk policy racially biased, but it had no measurable impact on the reduction of crime. Instead, the main effect of the policy was irreparable damage to the perceived legitimacy and fairness of police within the communities they were meant to protect and serve.

Black communities in the United States have dealt with this bias for years, but it has only become a prominent component of public discourse. Some, like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, argue that this bias is a figment of collective liberal imagination and blame President Obama, claiming that he is responsible for polarizing race relations in the United States. Others blame the growing Black Lives Matter movement, arguing that civil disobedience is what leads to police maltreatment. However, while this discourse may be uncomfortable, it is needed and therefore shouldn’t warrant blame.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.” Today, the poverty rate continues to increase, with one in four blacks live in poverty, and one in three black males can expected to be imprisoned at some point in their life. These are the same type of “contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society,” which Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed nearly fifty years ago. We can no longer afford to delay the conversation on racial bias in the United States.

Personally, I have never had to deal with any discrimination from police. When you closed your eyes and imagined a “criminal,” you probably didn’t picture a 32-year-old white woman with curly brown hair, freckles, and green eyes. Think about who you imagined, who others may imagine. How do you think a criminal stereotype affects that population’s interaction with police?

Racial discrimination has been an issue in the United States for centuries, and only now, with the advent of mobile recording, has it become nationally overt once again. True progress and change will come only once we collectively admit to this reality.

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in race and crime.


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Tags Black Lives Matter BLM Criminal justice Donald Trump Police policing Poverty prejudice prisons Race

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