Sunday, June 16, 2019


Excerpted From: Itay Ravid, True Colors: Crime, Race and Colorblindness Revisited, 28 Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy 243 (Winter 2018) (169 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ItayRavidIt was another warm night in the summer of 2001 in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Light winds were blowing as Jane Doe went out on her daily jog. She did not expect the upcoming tragic course of events, when an unknown man would brutally attack her. Jane was severely beaten and raped. During the assault, Jane was able to take a look at her attacker, and later, to provide the police department with a description: “a black male, under 30 years old, about 6 feet 1 to 2 inches tall, with a muscular build.” The police put out a press release which included the description, but the Washington Post (WaPo) refused to publish it when reporting the assault. The refusal was grounded in a “colorblind” policy, aimed at minimizing the presence of race in crime-related stories. The WaPo style book states that in crime stories, race will only be used when there is sufficient specific identifying information to publish a description of a suspect. In Jane's case, it was decided that mentioning the suspect's race did not comply with the stated guidelines. The rationale was to stop feeding dangerous and unfair racial stereotyping. Times have changed, suggested the then-editor of the Metro section when asked to explain the decision, and using race with no relevance to the story belongs to the past, to “a time when newspapers pandered to the racism in society.”

This Article challenges this somewhat naïve presumption. Using a novel dataset spanning ten years of WaPo coverage of crime (1997-2006) alongside crime statistics collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Project, and archived State level crime data, this Article shows that times have not changed as drastically as we might have hoped. Even with colorblind policies, the media continued to play a role in preserving crime-related racial stereotypes. The current reemergence of public, shameless, overt racism may be sad evidence to the “muting” role that colorblind approaches had in preventing social healing. This reality raises important questions as to whether colorblind policies in fact reduced racially motivated thought and action and altered racial attitudes. This Article delves into these questions, and is one of the first to consider the effect of purportedly colorblind media policies on representations of race in reporting.

The data illustrate the shortcomings of colorblindness. First, while explicit racial references indeed declined in crime reports, they were not eliminated. Instead, they were replaced by implicit racial cues, mostly the use of visuals. Moreover, the presence of race in crime reports increased over time with the shift towards visuals. Thus, race remained present in crime reports even by liberal news outlets. Second, crime-related racial schemas prevailed even under colorblind policies; although black perpetrators were covered in accordance to their actual arrest rates, Whites were consistently underrepresented as perpetrators both in national and local news. Moreover, crime reports on black perpetrators were, on average, more salient than reports on non-black perpetrators.

Offering a new dimension to the scholarship on the indivisibility of race and crime, this Article reaffirms that overt racism might have dissipated, but modern, unconscious racism remained. Moreover, the empirical evidence here demonstrates the flaws of colorblind policies in crime coverage and their failure to alter unequal racial representations.

Building on organizational, economic, and cognitive literature, I introduce the incognizant liberal trap as a conceptual framework to interpret these findings. This framework suggests that liberal media outlets, wholeheartedly believing they need to alter their reporting style on crime, instead fall into a trap impeding their ability to effect change due to a host of institutional circumstances and cognitive biases, most dominantly a blind spot in the coverage of white perpetrators. This unsatisfying outcome of colorblindness thus begs the question: can the media defeat the incognizant liberal trap and challenge the dominant, racially-imbalanced narratives? This Article offers to adopt a kind of “affirmative action” in crime coverage as a way to achieve this goal.

Finally, this Article argues that the use of implicit racial cues, even under a colorblind regime, goes well beyond the newsroom. Scholars of race and criminal justice have identified similar patterns, emphasizing the evolving nature of racism in the era of colorblindness. According to Michelle Alexander, modern racism is mostly about relabeling and creating a new discriminatory paradigm--from “Black” to “Criminal.” Despite the similar processes by which black and criminal are fused into one social concept--in both the media and the criminal justice system--the tight connections between the inequalities that permeated the two entities are still underexplored. Drawing on literature on the media's role in reinforcing racial schemas and affecting policies pertaining to race, this Article discusses the potential contribution of the media to the establishment of the black criminal stereotype. The consistent reinforcement of this stereotype contributed to its penetration into all parts of society, including the criminal justice system: police, prosecutors, correction officials, and the judiciary. The dominance of this schema in local news suggests an even greater impact on state-level criminal justice systems. Such interrelations call for a deeper inquiry into the media's potential role in producing racial animosity, which this Article seeks to begin.

Part I of this Article sets the conceptual framework of the study, addressing the scope and limitations of the literature on media's representations of race and crime, the potential effects of distorted racial portrayal on public perceptions of perpetrators, and implicit racial cues in the era of colorblindness. It also discusses how this Article tackles some of these limitations.

Part II explains the research design, the coding protocol, and the operationalization of the variables.

Part III presents the findings: how crime is covered in the print media, how race is communicated under colorblindness policies, and how perpetrators are portrayed in national and local news.

Part IV discusses the practical, theoretical, and normative implications of the findings. It introduces the incognizant liberal trap and offers to adopt an “affirmative action” of sorts in covering crime in hopes of achieving racial advancement.

[. . .]

This Article opened with a disturbing rape story in which the WaPo refused to mention the suspect's race (black). On the surface, this omission seems to be a positive outcome of colorblindness, guided by the WaPo's aspiration to minimize the presence of race in crime stories in hopes of deconstructing the black-criminal schema and fight racial animosity. Below the surface, however, racial bias kept bubbling. This longitudinal study took a close look at ten years of newspaper coverage on crime, aiming to tease out: first, if race has indeed disappeared under such colorblind policies; second, if the answer is negative, the ways through which race continue to exist in the coverage of crime; and third, how differently racial groups are covered as crime perpetrators.

The findings suggest that race remained dominant in the coverage of crime despite colorblind policies. First, the data revealed extensive use of both explicit and implicit racial cues in the coverage of crime despite alleged colorblind policies. Moreover, the data showed an increased use of visuals as a substitute for explicit communication of race. Second, this Study showed that on average, stories on black perpetrators are more salient than stories on white perpetrators, both at the local and the national level. Third, comparing the frequencies of coverage to real crime statistics showed that although Blacks were represented in accordance with their arrest rates, Whites were grossly underrepresented as perpetrators. Such imbalance creates an overall skewed portrayal of racial involvement in crime, with Blacks perceived to be involved in crime more often than actual crime statistics show. In sum, the schema on black perpetration was reaffirmed.

Given cognitive theories on the role of the media in both establishing and reaffirming stereotypical schemas, and how these schemas become societal cognitive shortcuts for understanding and judging crime in society, the tight connections between the racial portrayals predominating the media and those rationalizing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system were discussed. Those were emphasized even more at the local level.

It was discouraging to reveal the systematic presence of these schemas even among liberal news outlets openly aspiring for changes. The Article therefore went a step further in trying to explain the deficiencies of colorblind policies. The incognizant liberal trap was introduced as a potential perspective to interpret the findings and to explain the liberal outlets' limitations in fighting racial prejudice. This concept was attached to a deeply rooted institutional inertia resulting in a blind spot in the coverage of white perpetrators that may be the result of colorblind policies. As a potential solution to this inherent problem, I suggested an affirmative action-like policy in covering race and crime.

No doubt, such deeply institutionalized racial bias, even if known, cannot be instantly resolved as it demands an equally deep process of counter-racism. Market forces and individual cognitive biases hinder on the success of such processes. On the other hand, clearly, change is needed. The Article suggested ways of achieving such a change, including more awareness, heavier workload on journalists and editors, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. Nowadays, when racial issues are remerging across the U.S. in rage and violence, there are even stronger incentives to break the chain from the dominant paradigms in the criminal context, metaphorically and physically. 

Lecturer in Law and SPILS Teaching Fellow & J.S.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School.