Bioethics Blogs

Racial Biases in Face Judgment- When You “Look” Criminal

By Carlie Hoffman
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Racial bias can, and often does, occur in several elements of the criminal justice process, including on initial police contact, during eye-witness identification, and in jurors’ decisions. This disparity of how people are treated throughout the justice system is likely influenced by the criminal black male stereotype that pervades our American culture (1). Some propose that this stereotype originated in the slavery and post-slavery eras, with the onset of Jim Crow laws and other post-slavery codes that instigated segregation and also sanctioned racially-biased punishments for blacks, and especially for black males. Racially-biased punishments are still present today, with a 2015 article in Slate magazine citing that black Americans are more likely to have their cars searched, to be arrested for drug use, to be jailed while awaiting a trial, and to serve longer sentences for the same offense as white Americans.
The presence of racial bias in the criminal justice system is irrefutable, and investigation into the elements fueling this bias has recently moved into the realm of neuroscience. In last month’s Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News talk, Dr. Heather Kleider-Offutt from Georgia State University explained that not all black men are stereotyped in the same way. Instead, certain black men are subject to a higher degree of negative bias than other black men, and inclusion in this select subgroup is based on face-type and not skin color alone.

What is this face-type that engenders such a high degree of negative bias? In her article, “Black Stereotypical Features: When a Face-Type Can Get You in Trouble,” Kleider-Offutt stated that research participants judged faces with so-called “afro-centric” or “stereotypic” features as being more threatening than faces with non-stereotypic, or “atypical” black features.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.