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Perry L. Moriearty and William Carson

Reprinted from: Perry L. Moriearty and William Carson, Cognitive Warfare and Young Black Males in America, 15 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 281 (Spring 2012)


During the 1990s, deep into America's Wars on Crime and Drugs, an incursion commenced against a target that had, to that point, remained largely outside the crosshairs. Prompted by rising crime rates and a handful of high-profile incidents, politicians, the media, and much of the public became consumed by what they characterized as a looming threat. What made this target distinct was that it belonged to a cohort traditionally shielded from public scorn by both law and custom. The target was a subset of America's own children. Waged in race-neutral terms, this war's racial connotations were unmistakable. The most violent, the most adult-like, and the most amoral of adolescents were young black males.

This incursion bore many of the classic features of other modern American social wars: rhetorical excess, political extremism, graphic media, punitive policies, and, perhaps most critically, the casting of the enemy as a moral reprobate. To this end, the image of the adolescent super-predator, a term a Princeton professor coined in 1995, was a particularly salient symbol.

This Article considers the fallout from America's super-predator war. Some of it was unambiguous. During the 1990s, nearly every state in the country enacted laws that made it easier to try kids as adults, expanded criminal court sentencing authority over juvenile offenders, and modified or eliminated juvenile court confidentiality laws. These changes have been called the broadest and most sustained legislative crackdown ever on serious offenses committed by youth within the jurisdictional ages of American Juvenile The result was the incarceration of literally thousands of youth, the majority of whom were black males. By 1998, African-Americans constituted about 15% of youth under age eighteen, but nearly two-thirds of those transferred to adult court, a disparity for which crime commission rates could not begin to account. The country continues to feel the broader economic and sociological reverberations of these numbers. Today, nearly one in three African-American males in their twenties is under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.

The focus of this Article, however, is on a less visible set of phenomena. Why is it that we, as a country, were so willing during the 1990s to depart from our traditional posture of restraint toward child lawbreakers and adopt policies that have had such a devastating impact on so many of them? And why, now that we know how disproportionately damaging these policies are, have we done virtually nothing to change them? Part of the answer may lie in what this Article calls the social psychology of social war. Recent research into the mechanics and effects of social cognition suggests that preexisting stereotypes of the groups with which people are associated largely shape our perceptions of individuals. It further suggests that we rely on these stereotypes unconsciously and automatically, often without even realizing we are doing it. We also now know that both the content of our stereotypes and the frequency with which they are activated and applied are especially susceptible to certain outside influences. Importantly, several studies from the last two decades suggest that the graphic media imagery, political posturing, militaristic rhetoric, and Manichean moralizing often associated with American social wars are among these influences. These images and ideas impact not just the type of associations we make with our enemies, conflating Muslims with terrorism, Latinos with drug smuggling, and African-Americans with crime, for instance, but also the likelihood that we will draw upon these associations when we evaluate them. The more negative the association, the more negative the evaluation--and the more likely it is that we will support punitive responses to the threat we perceive.

In the case of the super-predator war, however, it was not only the mental associations, but also the mental dissociations that were critical. At the same time the super-predator war amplified the American public's predisposition to associate adolescents of color, and in particular young black males, with violence and moral depravity, it also led the public to dissociate young black males from the one trait that should not have been up for debate: their youth. The result was a veritable feedback loop whose cognitive output, the mental imprint of morally impoverished super-predators, continually fed its input. Thus, even as crime rates among black youth have dropped steadily since the mid-1990s, these self-reinforcing associations and dissociations have prompted lawmakers and their constituents to continue to support laws and policies that they know disproportionately punish and incapacitate young black males.

Admittedly, factors other than social war and social psychology have played a pivotal role in this dynamic. For instance, the history of race relations in this country, changes in our attitudes toward punishment, rising violent crime rates among adolescents, and conscious political strategy also played a role. But a look at the juvenile justice policies and youth imprisonment rates of other Western countries, even those that experienced a similar spike in adolescent crime during the period in question, suggest that we were extreme in our degree of political and social antipathy toward young offenders and nearly alone in our willingness to champion policies that punish them as harshly as adults. Not coincidentally, we have also been virtually alone in our willingness to wage what this Article characterizes as a veritable domestic social war against them.

This Article proceeds in two primary parts. Part II traces the origins, manifestations, and impact of the so-called American super-predator war that emerged in the late 1980s and lasted until the early 2000s, when the War on Terror took center stage. Beginning with a brief discussion of the history and anatomy of modern American social wars, it explores the laws, policies, politics, and rhetoric that coincided with dramatic increases in the incarceration of black youth during the super-predator era. Part III considers the role that social psychology may have played in this progression and in the progression of social wars more generally. Drawing upon recent studies into causes, functions, and consequences of social cognition, this Article argues that stereotypes linking race, adolescence, and crime drove, and at the same time reinforced, the manifestations of war Part II describes. The result was a self-reinforcing feedback loop that has altered the social meaning of young black male in profound and intractable ways. Because the majority of the people in this country now harbor such stereotypes about the criminality, deviance, and adultness of young black males, large segments of the public remain willing to enact, administer, and support policies that cause substantial and disproportionate harm to this segment of our youth population and are among the harshest in the Western world.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law