The Judge’s Snap Judgement

April 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is this racist? I asked in the previous post. While on jury duty, I had guessed that a Black man in the court building hallway was the defendant in the case and that a White man in a wheelchair was not. I was wrong. The Black man was the prosecutor. The wheelchair-bound White man was the killer.

In that post, I mentioned a similar case of a White man wrongly assuming that a Black man in court was the defendant and not the attorney. The man making the assumption was not a potential juror. It was the judge. Here is how The African American Athlete described it. 

This is a perfect case study regarding the perceptions some people have of the African-American community. Bryan Stevenson, a noted civil rights attorney who happens to be black, arrived for court early in order to prepare for an upcoming case.

This was the first appearance in this court for Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He sat down at the defense counsel table as he had hundreds of times in his career, and awaited the arrival of his client. The presiding judge walked in and saw Stevenson sitting there.  He admonished Stevenson, telling the attorney that he never lets ‘defendants’ sit alone in his courtroom without their lawyer.

Stevenson responded by identifying himself as a lawyer.  The judged laughed.  The prosecutor laughed. Stevenson laughed, too but only because he felt he had to in order to give his client the best opportunity in front of the judge.



You have to sympathize with Stevenson. For his client’s sake he had to make nice to a judge who had thoughtlessly insulted him, and who, as far as we know, was not even apologetic about it, just slightly embarrassed.

The incident raises an obvious question:

What Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer, dressed professionally in a suit and tie, wanted to know was why the judge would simply assume he was the defendant?

Does this judge look at all black men, no matter what their attire, no matter what their educational background, or life experiences and character references are, in the same manner?


The AAA answer to their own question, presumably, is: Yes, the judge looks at all Black men as though they are criminals.

The incident may show implicit racism, but I’m not sure that it’s “the perfect case study.”  Instead, it illustrates the snap judgment that we all use when we see someone for the first time. We instantly form an impression, based on our implicit biases but also on the context and on our experience. That initial impression shapes what we then see. And don't see. The judge, obviously, could not see Stevenson’s Harvard degree or the life experiences and character references that the AAA refers to. But how could the judge in a juvenile court look at a man in his early 50s wearing a suit and think that he was a defendant?

Here’s my guess. What the judge saw first was race (and probably gender). I suspect that most of us do that. The judge did not see Stevenson’s nice suit or his age. (If you wonder how people can not see something that is so obvious, please try the “Count the Passes” awareness test. *

The judge forms his impression in a quick glance. That’s what we all do. We are not Sherlock Holmes gathering all the available bits of information and then putting them together to reach a conclusion.

What’s also crucial is the context – it’s the judge’s courtroom. The judge has never seen Stevenson before, and as far as we know,  the judge was not advised that a new lawyer would be in court that day. Most courts like this have a regular cast – the same lawyers and the same prosecutors. So the judge walks in, looks over at the defense table, and sees someone who is not one of these regulars. That person is Black.

How many times has the judge seen a Black male he doesn’t know at the defense table? A lot. How many of these unfamiliar Black males are defendants? All of them. Maybe some of these defendants even show up in a suit, probably at the urging of their lawyers or parents.

If the judge had seen Stevenson at a PTA meeting or a restaurant or just walking down the street, would he have assumed that a Black man, fiftyish and wearing a suit, was a criminal? I don’t think so.
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*This incident also calls to mind Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see color.” For another example of what we see and don’t see, including color, watch this:


   

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