Are those with darker skin more likely to commit crimes than those with lighter skin? Is it because they are genetically prone to violence? Or is it because of how we have been taught to see them?
How we react to dark-skinned bodies is illustrated by a study conducted at the Department of Psychology of the University of Colorado, whose findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
The research was inspired by the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old West African immigrant killed in the Bronx by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun.
The subjects of the study played a video game where they were instructed to shoot human targets that were armed. Some of the targets were white, others were black. The subjects, who in all but one study were primarily white, were more likely to mistakenly conclude black men were armed and shoot them.
When confronted by blacks holding cell phones, wallets, soft-drink cans or cameras, the subjects were more likely to shoot then when confronted by whites. When confronted by white targets with guns, subjects were less likely to fire than if the targets were blacks with guns.
The study concluded that: “ethnicity influences the shoot/don’t shoot decision primarily because traits associated with African Americans, namely ‘violent’ or ‘dangerous’, can act as a schema to influence perceptions of an ambiguously threatening target … [hence] participants showed a bias to shoot African American targets more rapidly and/or more frequently than white targets. The implications of this bias are clear and disturbing.”
How our culture teaches us to “see” black bodies shapes behavior forcing people to respond quickly and automatically when confronted by those from the margins who are dark-skinned. Not convinced? Why then do you quickly lock your car doors when a black man approaches your car?
The real question before us is why are more men of color on death-row? How does “seeing” dark-skinned bodies influence the judicial system responsible for meriting capital punishment?
At the close of the 20th century, the U.S. incarcerated more than 2 million of its citizens, of which 70 percent were people of color. Among the African-American community, is was estimated that in 2000, one out of every 10 black men were incarcerated. While African Americans represent approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 50 percent of the prison population.
According to a 2003 Justice Department report, 12 percent of African American men, ages 20 to 34, are incarcerated. In comparison, only 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group are in prison.
Contrast this with the 2002 Justice Department report which concluded that white-collar crimes, usually committed by the privileged and powerful of the dominant culture, “are not taken seriously” in the courts and when convicted, receive lenient sentences.
These figures indicating disproportionality within prison populations should not be surprising, especially when we consider trends such as the following: Latino/as are likely to be released in only 26 percent of their legal cases, while non-Hispanics are released before trial 66 percent of the time; blacks who kill whites are sentenced to death 22 times more frequently than blacks who kill blacks and seven times more frequently than whites who kill blacks; and black youths are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white youths, even when charged with similar crimes and when neither have a prior record.
According to Amnesty International, from 1977 when capital punishment was reinstated until 2003, African Americans accounted for one out of every three executions. Their study shows how the death penalty is disproportionately applied on the basis of race, ethnicity and economic class.
Statistics such as these has led Amnesty International to conclude: “Beyond any reasonable doubt, the U.S. death penalty continues to reflect the deep-rooted prejudices of the society that condones it use. Amnesty International cannot find any evidence that current legal safeguards eliminate racial bias in the application of the death penalty.”
Many who are concerned with racial justice have begun to oppose capital punishment. Numerous studies concerning who is more likely to be executed have concluded that the race of the murder victim plays a significant role in determining whether the victim’s murderer will be executed.
Not only is the imposition of capital punishment dependent on a person’s race or ethnicity, but just as important, it is dependent on a person’s economic class. The economically privileged are simply not executed. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas bemoaned the fact that, “one searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of this society.”
The arbitrary fashion used to dispense justice makes capital punishment immoral, and our present judicial system unjust.
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.