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Simple Jury Persuasion: Christian religious concepts increase racial prejudice

Friday, December 17, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

We’ve written a lot about racial biases in the courtroom.  As regular readers of this blog know, we look for ways to mitigate the impact of racial biases. We believe in social justice. We also know (although we don’t like it much) that there are times when in the interests of advocacy, it is important to either fan the flame of racial prejudice or simply allow it to blossom and flower by not raising juror awareness of racism.

So when this research came out we knew we had to write about it because it’s somewhat surprising, so simple, and frankly—pretty awful. Johnson, Rowatt & LaBouff (2010) looked at the research showing correlations between measures of religiosity and racial prejudice, to see if there was a direct effect (i.e., a “causal” relationship) of religion on racial attitudes. (You know what’s coming.)

They used a concept called ‘priming’ and cite examples from previous research with which many of us are familiar. For example, the research where those holding a cup of hot coffee perceived a target person to be more ‘warm’ (i.e., generous and caring) and those holding iced coffee saw the same target person as ‘less warm’.  The current researchers examined past research featuring priming with religious concepts (such as God, religion, religious attendance) and decided they would test whether the priming-elicited activation of Christian concepts in Americans would increase racial prejudice. Historically, priming religiosity has been found to result in both positive and negative changes in attitudes and behaviors.

In other words, the literature is complex and not entirely consistent. Priming religiosity has resulted in increased pro-social behaviors, generosity, cooperation, honesty, problem-solving efforts and a decrease in moral hypocrisy. It has also resulted in increased aggression, submitting to requests for revenge, support for terrorism and altruistic punishment.

In the current study they used the words: Bible, faith, Christ, church, gospel, heaven, Jesus, Messiah, prayer, and sermon. They countered these religious primes with neutral primers (shirt, butter, switch, hammer, et cetera). Then they measured racial attitudes toward African Americans. After performing two different experiments (one measuring subtle prejudice and the second measuring overt prejudice)—they found that

“activation of Christian religious concepts increases subtle and overt prejudice towards a racially disadvantaged group”.

The researchers hypothesize that priming the Christian religious concepts fosters in-group pro-sociality and out-group antagonism. In other words, it raises love of those like yourself, and dislike of those who are different. This has been found in the authors’ previous research as well—priming Christian religion led to significant increases in negative attitudes toward gay men, Muslims and atheists (Johnson & Rowatt, 2009).

So what does this mean for litigation advocacy? We think quite a lot. While we have written on when to talk about racial bias in court and when to stay quiet, the findings of this research could certainly be added to the ‘when to stay quiet’ strategies.

We are based in Texas but are frequently called upon to work in far corners of our country. We often hear attorneys using religious references or talking about their Sunday School class in the Bible Belt states. They are doing it as a means of relating to jurors their shared beliefs and values. It says “I am like you, and what I represent is our common belief.” What this research suggests is that they may also be unwittingly ‘priming’ jurors to have more negative racial attitudes by activating ‘in group’ (‘the white people with whom I worship’) versus ‘out group’ (all those black folks out there) reactivity.

So if you are representing an African American client—you may want to avoid those religious similarity references because they could activate biases against your client. You want to play up similarities between your client and the jury that do not include religious activities (which would draw attention to your clients ‘differentness’). If you are inclined to make use of religious allusion or rhetoric, include a discussion of the risk of racism very overtly, to avoid the priming affect.

Race is a complicated thing but what is disturbing is the results of this study are not correlational but rather showing a direct effect of religion on bias against African Americans. The authors hasten to report that their findings were “small but significant” and reflect a “negative shift in existing racial attitudes and that the direction of the shift represents a slight but significant increase in racial prejudice”. Sometimes that little push is all a deliberating jury needs to find against the African American party.

Be careful out there.

Johnson, MK, Rowatt, WC, & LaBouff, J. (2010). Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1 (2).

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