Racialized Self-Defense: Effects of Race Salience on Perceptions of Fear and Reasonableness

By Suzy J. Park

Through a controlled experiment, this Note investigates the hypothesis that implicit references to racial stereotypes, such as subtle racial imagery, trigger mock jurors’ implicit biases to a greater degree than explicit invocations of racial stereotypes. Across six conditions, 270 participants read facts resembling those of People v. Goetz, in which a White defendant shot four young men in a subway train, allegedly in self-defense. Half of the participants viewed photos depicting the victims as White; the other half viewed photos depicting the victims as Black. Participants were further randomly assigned to read the defense attorney’s statement to the jury layered with implicit, explicit, or no racial cues. Following the experimental manipulation, participants indicated to what degree they believe that the defendant subjectively and reasonably believed that he was faced with a physical threat at the time of the shooting. Contrary to the hypothesis, the experiment found no statistically significant difference between explicit and implicit appeals to race in triggering individuals’ racial biases regardless of the race of the victims. This Note contributes to the existing literature by providing experimental data on exactly how powerful the use of implicit racial imagery may be in the courtroom and by probing the mechanism through which racially coded language affects jurors’ decision-making. The results further suggest that, since courts cannot easily make people “turn off” their prejudices through the use of race salience, choosing jurors during voir dire who are internally and genuinely motivated to be unprejudiced is all the more important.

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