Dateline: November, 2010, Issue 2

Does it help or hurt defendants when racial differences are a salient issue in a trial?

Present day social norms cast a negative light on those who hold racist attitudes, and these norms influence how white Americans respond when placed in situations in which race is openly and directly addressed.

In two studies, Sommers and Ellsworth (2000, 2001) found that when race is made salient in a criminal case, white jurors exhibit less racial bias toward black defendants. The researchers concluded that when race is openly and directly addressed, white jurors are motivated to appear consistent with the social norm of not being prejudiced against minorities.

These researchers also found that when racial differences are not made a salient feature of a case, white jurors are not motivated to avoid appearances of prejudice and exhibit more bias against black defendants. When racial differences exist and are not made a salient factor, white jurors are more confident of a black defendant's guilt and recommend harsher sentences.

Making racial differences salient reduces biases whites have toward black defendants.

Source Sommers, S. R., & Ellsworth, P.C. (2000). Race in the courtroom: Perceptions of guilt and dispositional attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, pp. 1367-1379.

Source Sommers, S. R., & Ellsworth, P.C. (2001). White juror bias: An investigation of prejudice against black defendants in the American courtroom. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 7, pp. 201-229.