The Myth of Objectivity: Implicit Racial Bias and the Law (Part 1)

Willem Hendrik Gravett

Abstract


The centrality of race to our history and the substantial racial inequalities that continue to pervade society ensure that "race" remains an extraordinarily salient and meaningful social category.  Explicit racial prejudice, however, is only part of the problem.  Equally important - and likely more pervasive - is the phenomenon of implicit racial prejudice: the cognitive processes whereby, despite even our best intentions, the human mind automatically classifies information in racial categories and against disfavoured social groups. Empirical research shows convincingly that these biases against socially disfavoured groups are (i) pervasive; (ii) often diverge from consciously reported attitudes and beliefs; and (iii) influence consequential behaviour towards the subjects of these biases. The existence of implicit racial prejudices poses a challenge to legal theory and practice. From the standpoint of a legal system that seeks to forbid differential treatment based upon race or other protected traits, if people are in fact treated differently, and worse, because of their race or other protected trait, then the fundamental principle of anti-discrimination has been violated. It hardly matters that the source of the differential treatment is implicit rather than conscious bias. This article investigates the relevance of this research to the law by means of an empirical account of how implicit racial bias could affect the criminal trial trajectory in the areas of policing, prosecutorial discretion and judicial decision-making.  It is the author's hypothesis that this mostly American research also applies to South Africa. The empirical evidence of implicit biases in every country tested shows that people are systematically implicitly biased in favour of socially privileged groups. Even after 1994 South Africa – similar to the US – continues to be characterised by a pronounced social hierarchy in which Whites overwhelmingly have the highest social status. The author argues that the law should normatively take cognizance of this issue.  After all, the mere fact that we may not be aware of, much less consciously intend, race-contingent behaviour does not magically erase the harm. The article concludes by addressing the question of the appropriate response of the law and legal role players to the problem of implicit racial bias.

Keywords


Racial bias; Implicit racial bias; Racism; Implicit Association Test; Prosecutorial Discretion; Judicial Decision-making

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/1727-3781/2017/v20i0a1312

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