Is the Defendant White or Not?
This article originally appeared in The New York Time on Jan. 25, 2015.
By Nour Kteily
As jury selection continues in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the defendant in the Boston Marathon bombings, so does debate about what would constitute a fair and impartial jury. Questions have been raised about the race, gender, age and religiosity of prospective jurors; about the effect of holding the trial in Boston; and about the legal requirement that the jurors be open to the possibility of sentencing the defendant to death.
But recent research of ours suggests that another, largely overlooked factor may also play an important role in the trial: whether the jurors perceive Mr. Tsarnaev as white.
No sooner did the F.B.I. release photographs of Mr. Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, three days after the bombings, than questions arose about the racial identity of the suspects. (“Are the Tsarnaev Brothers White?” ran a headline in Salon.) Although neither brother matched the visual prototype of a white American, both hailed from the Caucasus, the region that gave rise to the term “Caucasian,” and both had lived in America for many years.
In the aftermath of the bombings, we sought to answer two questions: If white people perceived Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as less white, did that influence their support for treating him harshly? (Tamerlan was dead by this point.) And if people varied in how white they considered Mr. Tsarnaev to be, what psychological propensities, if any, determined whether they perceived him as more like “us” or more like “them”? We, along with three of our colleagues, published our findings last year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Within hours of the F.B.I.’s release of the suspects’ photographs, we collected responses from 426 white Americans to a broad questionnaire assessing a range of their demographic information as well as aspects of their ideological orientations. Eight days later, we offered these same participants the opportunity to respond to a second questionnaire. Here, we presented them with the original F.B.I. photos, and asked them to tell us how white they thought the suspects looked.
We then asked the participants whether they endorsed statements such as “I hope the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon attacks rots in hell” and “It is O.K. for Tsarnaev not to have been read his Miranda rights before interrogation” and “We shouldn’t rush to judgment in bringing the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon attacks to justice.” They were also asked to indicate the sentence that they felt Mr. Tsarnaev ought to receive should he be found guilty, with options ranging from “a maximum of 20 years in prison with the possibility of parole” to “the death penalty.”
We found that there was substantial ambiguity about whether the Tsarnaev brothers were white. On a scale from zero (nonwhite) to 100 (white), the participants varied in their perceptions, with ratings running the full gamut from zero to 100. The average rating was around 64.
Which individuals were less likely to “grant” the Tsarnaevs whiteness? In our initial questionnaire, we focused on two ideological outlooks that have been well studied by political psychologists: the belief that some groups of people are superior to others (“social dominance orientation”) and the belief in the importance of following traditions and respecting authorities (“right-wing authoritarianism”). We found that participants who scored high in either outlook were less likely to perceive the Tsarnaev brothers as looking white, effectively steering the brothers into “outsider” territory.
We also found that such whiteness perceptions had the potential to play an important role in the outcome of Mr. Tsarnaev’s trial. The lower that individuals rated Mr. Tsarnaev as looking white, the more willing they were to punish him severely. In a case like Mr. Tsarnaev’s, where guilt is widely presumed and where the outcome will most likely fall on one side of the line between life imprisonment and death, this finding seems especially relevant.
One implication of our research is the need to expand what factors play a role in determining jury makeup. If your tendency to perceive a defendant as more like “us” or “them” is reliably predicted by certain of your ideological beliefs, and if those beliefs can influence factors critical to the impartiality of the legal process, then jury screening questionnaires should measure them.
In an increasingly multiracial world, trying racially ambiguous defendants will become only more common. Just as we ask potential jurors questions like “Do you go to church?” we need to ask questions like “Is having a decent respectable appearance still the mark of a lady?” (one of many questions used to gauge right-wing authoritarianism) and “If certain groups of people ‘stayed in their place,’ would we have fewer problems?” (social dominance orientation).
By using such information, courts can better take into account the broader ideological balance of a potential jury.
- Nour Kteily is an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.