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euphemism treadmillIt’s a constantly moving target. Just over a year ago, we wrote about this on-going question and cited a Gallup Poll saying 65% of Black Americans have no preference when it comes to labels used to describe their racial or ethnic group. The authors of today’s research article would disagree. They say there are consequences (and loads of meaning) behind the two labels.

Stephen Pinker first coined the phrase euphemism treadmill in 1994. The phrase refers to a descriptive term that was once acceptable, but has now become pejorative. An example would be the word “crippled”, replaced by “handicapped”, which was then replaced by the phrase “person with disabilities” or, in some circles, “differently challenged”. When you write, and use an outdated, once acceptable but now pejorative phrase, you run the risk of being seen as biased, unaware, old school, or downright insensitive.

So, in 2013, Gallup said it really didn’t matter. Today’s writers demonstrate, via four separate studies, that we have very different associations to the labels “African-American” and “Black”. Specifically, we make assumptions about “Blacks” being lower in social status, less educated, and less competent than the “African-American”. In brief, here are their findings:

The label “Black” signals lower social class and status than does the label “African-American”. Further, the label “Black” evokes more negative stereotype content (as well as assumptions of lower status and less feelings of warmth) than does the label “African-American”.

Media articles on crime reports are more negative in emotional tone when they use the label “Black” then when they use the label “African-American”.

Whites view a criminal suspect more negatively when s/he is identified as “Black” rather than “African-American”.

The dilemma with these two polarizing labels (“Black” and “African-American) is that White observers are attaching presumptions based on racial labels. Instead of using either of these long-standing descriptors, these authors propose the use of a new descriptor: Americans of African Descent (AADs). Their belief is that use of a new label will short-circuit the stereotypes (positive and negative) that accompany the currently used labels and require judgements to occur based on the individual. Whether this will catch on or not, is anyone’s guess. But, staying on top of trends and labels is an important part of the work for all of us.

So, is it “Black” or is it “African-American”?

Or, should it perhaps be “Americans of African Descent”?

As mentioned above, Gallup says it doesn’t seem to really matter to the target individuals being described. But today’s authors say it matters a lot to the listener as “Black” and “African-American” have become cognitive shortcuts for many of us. So what to say?

The cynical might say it all depends on the reaction you want to evoke in the listener. That would mean that if you want to evoke a less positive attribution to a person, use the word “Black”, and if you want to imbue them with more of an upscale aura, use “African-American”. Either can be used to evoke the more negative or the more positive associations.

Our guess would be it’s a lot more nuanced than that. While there were a few more than 370 participants across four studies, we would like to see a bit larger sample to ascertain whether this stereotyping of racial labels occurs across the country or if it is limited to certain regions. We also don’t really know what stereotypes might arise if someone was described as an “American of African Descent”. Further, who knows how long the new label will encounter resistance, or how and when it might be co-opted by time.

In short, it’s an intriguing variable to consider. Are we indeed evoking racial stereotypes when we describe individuals as either “Black” or “African-American”? Is that what we really mean to do?

Hall, EV, Phillips, KW, & Townsend, SSM (2014). A rose by any other name? The consequences of subtyping “African-Americans” from “Blacks”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 


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mother of all gender gapsWe follow, as you may have noticed, attitudes, values and beliefs toward a wide variety of issues. So we were surprised to see this 2012 national poll from Quinnipiac University pop up in a number of recent blog posts. According to their survey, while Americans favored the legalization of marijuana (51% to 44%) there were significant age and gender gaps.

“Men support legalization 59 to 36% but women are opposed 52 to 44%.”

Younger voters, “18-29 years old support legalization 67 to 29% while voters over age 65 are opposed 56 to 35%.”

For some reason, a number of blogs picked up the survey about 2 years after it was completed and questioned why the gender gap in attitudes toward marijuana legalization existed. Michele Martinez Campbell at Narcolaw wonders if, as others have posited, it is “just that more men than women are potheads” and scoffs at that explanation as glib.Instead, she believes, “female opposition stems from questions about the impact legalization will have on public health, crime and the social fabric”.

Over at TheMoneyIllusion, Scott Sumner calls this “the mother of all gender gaps” and gets 47 comments. One of the commenters points out a similar gender gap on marijuana legalization in a 2014 survey in Germany (although he did not provide a URL), but still none of the commenters seem to notice the “new” survey they are talking about is 2 years old.

Finally, the discussion goes over to Marginal Revolution and Tyler Cowen amasses 113 comments (at this writing)–many of which are sexist although some are quite funny (“it’s hard enough to get the man to take the trash out when he isn’t stoned”). And again, despite the proliferation of comments, not a single commenter mentions the Quinnipiac survey they are hotly debating is from 2012 and not 2014.

It’s a curious pattern for sure–men trending more liberal and women more conservative. It is at odds with what tends to happen and therefore we think it could be important. But, we can’t just take 2012 data and interpret it through a 2014, post mid-term election lens. We need to see if the gender gap Quinnipiac reported in 2012, remains the same in 2014. Why? Attitudes toward marijuana legalization have been changing very quickly. In November of 2014, we simply cannot know if the “mother of all gender gaps” really does still exist based on survey data from 2012.

When using survey data and hypothesizing as to meaning in the current day, you need to be very sure your survey data is also current.

And it would be wise to go to the original source rather than parroting what others have said and furthering the inaccuracies.


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Marijuana-Gay-Marriage-WashingtonSometimes we run across odd associations as we peruse research literature. Here’s an article from Pacific Standard saying we can potentially predict when the legalization of marijuana will occur by looking at how quickly attitudes toward same-sex marriage shifted in the United States. And this prediction relies, not on pundits or polls, but rather on what they call “data science”.

Essentially, the article says, you can use “data on similar issues” to “build a mathematical model” and use that model to “estimate the likely outcomes for marijuana legalization across the country”. The article quotes University of Minnesota political science professor Andrew Karch. According to Karch, the spread of political policies (like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization) “tend to follow predictable patterns”. He uses data from same-sex marriage approval ratings and legalization to predict when recreational marijuana will be legal across the country. He predicts seven years: that is, marijuana national legalization will occur within seven years, by 2021.

When, according to the article, 60% of states adopt legal marijuana, the federal government will probably take action. Apparently, 60% is the “tipping point” for federal action to make laws consistent across the country. These writers think that recreational marijuana may actually spread faster than same-sex marriage laws since there is so much money available to states who legalize. (Colorado reportedly collected $60-$70M in “recreational pot tax revenue” in 2014.)

This is a different relationship than a correlation. This is a relationship based on data points prediction: data science. We can’t say that this is a date to bet on, but most of us likely would not have predicted the speed with which same-sex marriage became accepted and legalized. The article is easy to read and offers graphics to show how the ideas work. It’s worth a read if you ever wonder about how statisticians make these kinds of predictions.

What Same-Sex Marriage Means for the Future of Recreational Weed. Pacific Standard, October 27, 2014.


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Brittany-MaynardBrittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with an aggressive and terminal brain cancer who announced her intention to take her life, has put a face on the “death with dignity” movement. Her announcement that she would take her life thanks to Oregon’s right to die laws, spurred many “offers” of advice for her. Cannabis for cancer, stem cell therapy, choose life, and multiple offers of vitamin cures, dietary changes, and other ideas proliferate in comment sections.

Others in the comment sections express the idea that Maynard herself comments on in her video–i.e., no one else can know what is best for her and many comment they wish this option of choosing the time of death had been available to their loved ones who died of cancer. Maynard initially said she would die on November 2, but then, as the date approached, changed her mind saying it simply “wasn’t the right time yet” although she ultimately did take her life on November 1. Brittany Maynard has achieved her goal of a national discussion on death with dignity.

It’s an issue that the Pew Research Center also highlighted recently, saying it is an issue that divides America. Here are some of the attitudes Pew reported in their October 22, 2014 report on American attitudes toward doctor-assisted suicide laws.

While 2/3 of Americans say there are circumstances where a patient should be allowed to die, there is more division over allowing doctor-assisted suicides for the terminally ill. Pew says Americans are almost evenly split on the issue “with 47% in favor of such laws and 49% opposed. Views on doctor-assisted suicide are little changed since 2005.”

Surprisingly, there is no real difference in attitudes toward doctor-assisted suicide by age group: “Maynard’s generation is no more supportive of such laws than are older Americans: 45% of those ages 18-29 approve of assisted-suicide laws, while 54% oppose them.”

Maynard post insert

It’s an intriguing topic to consider in the context of jury selection. We agree with the Pew finding that young Americans have given little thought to end of life issues. But our experience has been that while our mock jurors have abstract beliefs about hot-button issues, when they see and hear the facts of a story and are faced with the obstacles and experiences of a Plaintiff–they often change their minds about how they would feel “in the Plaintiff’s shoes”.

One especially powerful pretrial research project we conducted showed a “day in the life” video of the Plaintiff who was paralyzed and had made clear his wish to be allowed to die (repeatedly). One male juror quietly muttered that the Plaintiff could not even raise a hand to achieve his goal. Others grimly nodded. In that case, there was consensus in the deliberation room as to what “should” be allowed to happen.

It’s a powerful thing to consider. We can “know” how we think we feel. But once we are in a horrible position, like Brittany Maynard has faced, the choices we will make are ones that could well be foreign to use before we were forced to consider them. Telling your client’s story without the use of “hot button phrases” that will keep jurors from listening could result in an outcome unexpected if you are predicting juror behavior from current research polls.


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illegal-immigrants3You are likely familiar with the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics often receive harsher sentences than do White defendants. So where do you think the undocumented immigrant or non-citizen would fall in that lineup? The undocumented receive the harshest sentences and non-citizens (who are in the country legally) come in second. Why? The authors of this paper have a hypothesis: we jury-eligible citizens are simply afraid, and are trying to maintain control of our country.

“…dominant group members feel threatened economically, politically, criminally, or culturally, and will step up efforts to maintain control when minority group populations are increasing.”

You may be surprised to know “more than 30,000 non-US citizens from approximately 150 countries” have been sentenced to time in US prisons by the federal courts each year since 2008. In fact, about half of all the offenders sentenced today in our federal courts are non-US citizens and a “large proportion are from Latin America”–leading some scholars to question if there was a “Hispanic penalty” in sentencing. Researchers examined archival data from US federal courts (using the US Sentencing Commission’s Standardized Research Files) in an attempt to examine if sentencing disparities existed between citizens and non-citizens. The findings are nothing less than stunning.

Compared to US citizens, non-citizen offenders are “over four times more likely to be incarcerated, and this effect is larger than the effects for race, ethnicity, gender, age, education, being convicted at trial, and any of the offense types”. (In other words, being a non-citizen trumps all the other extra-legal variables your client may embody.)

Non-citizens receive “roughly an additional 3.5 months of incarceration” when compared to citizens. “As a point of comparison, Hispanics receive between one and two months of additional prison time compared to whites.” This may sound relatively small, but as the authors point out, “When combining the citizenship penalty across the incarceration and length decisions, the cumulative increase in incarceration is 5,765 total prison years for 2008 alone”. While non-citizens receive higher sentences compared to citizens, the undocumented immigrant is at even higher risk for severe punishment than the legal immigrant.

In response to the questions raised about the “Hispanic penalty”, the researchers show that the “magnitude of the citizenship penalty is over four times stronger than Hispanic ethnicity” when it comes to sentencing. They go on to report that Hispanic ethnicity really explains almost none of the overall citizenship effect. These authors suggest that the harsher punishments observed for Hispanic defendants is more a function of their citizenship status than of their ethnicity.

Every ethnic group lacking US citizenship (including white non-citizens) receive harsher punishment than do defendants who are white citizens. For all races, citizens are punished less harshly than non-citizens.

As concerns about immigration have increased, so has the citizenship penalty. That is, the length of prison sentences assigned to non-citizens has grown substantially as the country has become concerned over the “dramatic influx of non-citizens and undocumented immigrants over the past two decades”. In areas where there are a higher influx of non-citizens, there is a higher “citizenship penalty” in sentencing.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this article is useful to us in many ways. As the authors say, “citizenship appears to trump race and ethnicity when determining punishments for those who violate US law”.

Reading can help you obtain a sentence for your client that is consistent with those assigned to white defendants rather than incurring a citizenship penalty.

It can be used to educate jurors involved in sentencing decisions and judges making decisions on sentencing if your client is found guilty.

And unlike many statistically heavy articles that illustrate their findings with graphs and charts that are completely incomprehensible–this one makes the point clearly. The figure below (taken from the article itself) illustrates the differences in sentencing you see when you examine only race rather than incorporating citizenship status. This figure, presented and explained piece by piece, communicates clearly what happens with sentencing when the defendant is a non-citizen. Bias comes out in multiple ways we cannot see and, as these researchers clearly illustrate: citizenship trumps race and ethnicity.

citizenship insert


Light, M., Massoglia, M., & King, R. (2014). Citizenship and Punishment: The Salience of National Membership in U.S. Criminal Courts American Sociological Review, 79 (5), 825-847 DOI: 10.1177/0003122414543659


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