Published on: Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A forthcoming U.C. Davis law review article titled Looking Criminal And The Presumption Of Dangerousness: Afrocentric Facial Features, Skin Tone, and Criminal Justice, is now available at SSRN here.  The authors, U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennet (N.D. Iowa) and Dr. Victoria C. Plaut (Professor of Law and Social Science and Director of the Culture, Diversity, and Intergroup Lab, UC Berkeley), examine the presumption of dangerousness to which Blacks are subjected in the American criminal justice system and its arbitrary effects.  By presumption of dangerousness, the authors are referring to repeated studies that “indicate Blacks with darker skin tones and stronger facial features ‘activate automatic associations with negative behavioral stereotypes.’”  This presumption of dangerousness, which the authors say is “unknowingly inscribed in the consciousness of most White America,” is necessarily at odds with the way the presumption of innocence is supposed to work in our criminal justice system. 

An abstract of the article explains how the authors go beyond describing the problem of skin tone and Afrocentric facial feature bias: 

Social psychologists have established that faces of Black males trigger thoughts of violence, crime, and dangerousness and thoughts of crime trigger thoughts and images of Black males. This presumption of dangerousness increases with darker skin tones (colorism) and greater Afrocentric facial features and affects both men and women. We examine the history of the stereotype of Blacks and crime, violence, and dangerousness arising in the United States from the time of slavery. We focus on the historical development of this stereotype through a lens of history, literature, pseudo-science, emerging neuroscience, media distortion of crime reporting, and the development of the Negro-ape metaphor. We then look beyond the Black-White race dichotomy to explore the evolving social science literature examining the influence of skin tone and Afrocentric facial features on the length of criminal sentences. We further explore the social science supporting the presumption of dangerousness and conclude with recommendations to help ameliorate this problem that permeates the American criminal justice system.

The Training Division provides resource materials for litigating race in federal criminal court here.  The Division will present a training on Race in the Federal Criminal Court: Strategies in Pursuit of Justice in St. Louis, Missouri on April 19-21, 2018, with registration opening soon.