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Biased hearts, biased cameras and biased verdicts

Monday, February 22, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

A recent Gallup poll found that Americans are twice as prejudiced against Muslims as we are against any other religious group. This poll was conducted between October 31st and November 13, 2009 (with the Fort Hood shootings by a US-born Muslim military doctor occurring on November 5, 2009). However, the findings are not that far afield from negative attitudes toward Muslims found since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. ‘We’ don’t know many actual facts about the Muslim religion—but we don’t like or trust ‘them’.

Other recent reports include the finding that we are prejudiced toward migrants, in part, because they are awkward for us to think about. That is, thinking about someone who was born in one country and lives in another country now is tiring for us (and presumably we don’t like that).

Asian consumers reportedly thought their face-recognition cameras were faulty until they realized the camera thought they had their eyes closed because the cameras had apparently only been tested on white people. Similarly, surveillance cameras could not track the face of a black man but could track a white woman. Manufacturers say they are “looking into this”.

Racial bias emerges in many places you don’t expect it. And some where you do expect it. We’ve blogged about race and racism a lot: here and here and here. And a new study reports that racial bias also has relationship to how much help we think victims need.

Researchers at Kansas State University examined attitudes toward victims of Hurricane Katrina one year after the hurricane. They looked at measures of conservatism, empathy and racism. What they found is disturbing but not particularly shocking. In the study, the racial biases of participants led them to underestimate the help people need. In other words, the more racist the participant was, the less help they thought the victim deserved.

This has immediate applicability for litigators. When your client has been wronged, racist attitudes on the jury affect the verdict. We’ve seen this first-hand and we recommend this strategy among others. The bottom line is this: do not assume race doesn’t matter in your case. Race always matters. The question is how and in what direction. Don’t go to trial without knowing.

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