Rotherham and ‘playing the race card’ – Psychologists investigate whether perpetrator’s race protects against being found guilty. Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham

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Rotherham and ‘playing the race card’ – Psychologists investigate whether perpetrator’s race protects against being found guilty.

Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham

IMG_2352One of the reasons, it is argued, that extensive sexual abuse and child exploitation was tolerated for so long in Rotherham, is that the race of the perpetrators might have been a factor.
The argument runs something like this: because largely white people in authority would have to make decisions pursuing a frequently Asian group of criminals, fear of racism seemed to protect the culprits.
But beyond gossip and hearsay – is there any evidence that there is indeed a ‘race card’ which can be ‘played’ in cases like this? Is it possible that some people are aware there is such a ‘card’, and actively exploit it to their own ends? Some might even argue that the contention such a ‘race card’ exists, in itself smacks of latent racism.
Yet psychological research has uncovered just such an effect.
A scientific study entitled ‘Playing the race card: Making race salient in defence opening and closing statements’ from the University of New Hampshire, USA, examined whether making race more noticeable by including racially salient statements in a defence attorney’s opening and closing statements (i.e., ‘playing the race card’) reduced White jurors’ racial bias against a Black defendant.
This North American study was conducted using White College Students, so the race effects investigated centered on ‘White’ and ‘Black’ in US terms. The experiment, published in 2010, is part of a body of American research, which has also arrived at similar conclusions.


This particular study investigated whether a defence attorney using explicit, direct references about the defendant’s race in opening and closing statements, had an impact on White juror decisions in a trial during which a Black defendant was accused of an interracial crime.

Participants were exposed to one of four trial scenarios, and the results were that ‘Playing the race card’ had a significant effect. White jurors’ ratings of Black defendants’ guilt were significantly lower when the defence lawyer’s statements included racially salient statements.
White juror ratings of guilt for White defendants and Black defendants were not significantly different, when race was not made salient.
The authors of the study, Donald Bucolo and Ellen Cohn, conclude that an explicit attempt by a defence attorney to ‘play the race card’ was a strategy lawyers might use to reduce White jurors’ bias towards Black defendants.
The study published in the academic journal, ‘Legal & Criminological Psychology’, contended that emphasizing race in defence legal statements, has a real impact on white juror’s views of black defendants’ guilt.
The authors argued this is possibly because ‘playing the race card’ reminds White jurors that their verdict could make them appear prejudiced; therefore, they respond in what they view as more socially appropriate, or perhaps ‘politically correct’, ways; in other words, being significantly less likely to find Black defendants guilty.
The authors of this research led a team who have also conducted another similar study which found that when testimony included defence witness’ comments emphasizing that the accused was in court because he was Black, and the target White, White jurors were again significantly more likely to exonerate the Black defendant, when compared to White jurors who did not hear such testimony.


But outside of the confines of the psychological laboratory is there any evidence that this so-called race card effect exists?  Donald Bucolo and Ellen Cohn point to the so-called ‘Trial of the twentieth century’, involving O. J. Simpson.

They argue that Simpson’s defence attorneys emphasised evidence of an LAPD detective using racial slurs, as suggesting that the supposedly racially motivated police officer planted evidence to secure the conviction of the famous (and Black) Simpson. Bucolo and Cohn contend this was a possible example of successfully ‘playing the race card’, as it is widely believed the defence eventually secured the acquittal of Simpson, largely due to this legal strategy of rendering the racist comments from a police officer, particularly salient in the trial.
Donald Bucolo and Ellen Cohn study point out that this ‘race card’ effect may be complex and subtle.
For example in a study entitled ‘Effects of Victim and Defendant Race on Jurors’ Decisions in Child Sexual Abuse Cases’ by Bette Bottoms, Suzanne Davis and Michelle Epstein, ethnic minority victims were held more accountable for their assaults than were White counterparts. This effect was found both for younger (12-year-old) and older (16-year-old) victims.
The authors of the study, published in the ‘Journal of Applied Social Psychology’, argue that jurors may be more aware in modern society that an overt finding of guilt or innocence could reveal racism, so they guard against this when coming to such verdicts.
However the more subtle measure of allocation of ‘responsibility’ of a victim for the crime in a case of sexual assault, might allow otherwise suppressed racism, to come through.
This may also be relevant to the Rotherham case.
Donald Bucolo and Ellen Cohn argue that we are now socialized and educated to believe that racism and discrimination are wrong.
So instead of harbouring naked abhorrence or antagonism towards other ethnic groups, people who could be in conflict on this issue, may now instead develop feelings of uneasiness and discomfort in the presence of other ethnicities, or having to make a high-stakes decision involving them. That making race salient still has a significant impact in juror studies, suggests we are reacting to this deep, perhaps even sub-conscious unease.
Therefore, the authors suggest, some now actively try to avoid appearing racist and react to situations where they could be perceived as prejudiced in socially desirable ways.


In other words, is it possible that we know we have really eliminated racial prejudice when we feel confident we can find people guilty or innocent, and our judgements are not influenced, in any direction, by race?

Psychologists will argue, despite superficial appearances, it is not that racial prejudice ever went away – it just manifests differently – sometimes even as apparently the opposite behaviour – as Rotherham attests.

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