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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.


II. The Anatomy of the American Social Wars

Over the last half century, this country has been in a perpetual state of war. From Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, to the Wars on Crime and Drugs, to our current War on Terror, to smaller incursions against cancer and immigration, we, as a nation, have spent the last fifty years in an ever-present posture of social anxiety and metaphorical combat. Each of this century's most prominent social wars has followed a similar pattern: an intense period of political posturing about the dangers of the chosen target, accompanied by episodic media coverage of a few sensationalized incidents, followed by a period of public outcry and polls that reflect the public's mounting fear of the target, followed finally by a flurry of punitive laws at both the federal and state level that lawmakers have justified as efforts to reassure an anxious public. More often than not, these laws have a disproportionately negative impact on a racial or ethnic out-group. America's Wars on Crime and Drugs are illustrative. The super-predator war followed a similar pattern. One difference, however, is that unlike the racial minorities and poor whites the Wars on Crime and Drugs swept up, our adolescent population had never before experienced the groundswell of social antipathy that the super-predator war generated.


A. The Wars on Crime and Drugs

This Part retraces the origins and ramifications of the War on Crime and the War on Drugs. It begins by recounting the ways in which politics and media drove public support for the Wars' most punitive policies. Next, it discusses the impact of these wars on racial minorities in the justice system.

1. Politics, Media, Public Opinion, and Lawmaking

a. The War on Crime

The law and order rhetoric that has dominated political discourse in the United States for the last half century first emerged in the late 1950s. Southern politicians, angered by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, called for a crackdown on the hoodlums and agitators who challenged segregation and African-American disenfranchisement. Crime officially took its place on the national political scene a decade later with presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's thinly veiled crime in the streets condemnation. History shows us . . . that . . . nothing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets from bullies and marauders, Goldwater warned during his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention. That message resonated with the public. By 1968, more than four in five U.S. citizens agreed that law and order had broken down, that crime was on the rise, and that Negroes who start riots were the cause. Being tough on crime has been a virtual political necessity ever since.

The news media was an indispensable ally. This has been especially true since the onset of the soft news era of the late 1990s. Between 1990 and 1993, crime leapt from the fifth to the first most covered topic on the national evening news. By the end of the decade, coverage of homicides had increased more than five-fold. If it bleeds, it leads, became the mantra. According to opinion polls, the American people believed the hype. From 1994 to 1998, respondents to national polls consistently identified crime as the most important problem the nation faced. In a 1997 Los Angeles Times poll, 80% of respondents stated that the media's portrayal of violent crime had increased their personal fear of becoming a crime victim.

Deeming them necessary to reassure an anxious public, lawmakers followed each law and order panic wave with a series of executive actions and legislative changes. In 1968, for example, in an attempt to neutralize the attacks of Republican candidates contending that he was soft on crime, President Johnson signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which increased funding for law enforcement, attempted to overturn Supreme Court precedent protecting criminal defendants, and provided for expanded use of wiretaps and Miranda-less confessions. The Omnibus Bill was the first of many federal tough-on-crime laws that legislatures would enact over the next three decades. These included the Omnibus Bill's eventual successor, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which authorized more than thirty billion dollars for crime prevention efforts, law enforcement, and state prison construction.

More draconian were the laws individual states enacted during the War on Crime. One quintessential example is California's three-strikes law, which mandates twenty-five years to life sentences following conviction for any third felony. New Jersey's Megan's Law, which requires sex offender registration and public notification, is another. Today, more than half of all states have habitual felony offender laws akin to California's three-strikes law, and all fifty states have a version of Megan's Law. In addition, nearly every state has adopted truth-in-sentencing laws, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and zero-tolerance practices; these laws and policies have resulted in harsher penalties and the virtual elimination of rehabilitation programs.

b. The War on Drugs

Launched on the heels of the War on Crime, the War on Drugs was even more ubiquitous. Not heavily regulated during the first half of the century, drugs emerged as a potent political issue in the second half. In 1971, Richard Nixon declared drug abuse Public Enemy No. 1 and created a new agency, the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, which received enhanced funding for drug treatment and enforcement. This would be the first and the last time during the War on Drugs that more funding went toward treatment than punishment. By 1985, nearly four-fifths of funds lawmakers allocated to the drug problem went to law enforcement.

Following in Nixon's footsteps, subsequent administrations successfully used the War on Drugs to cast drug use as a moral problem. By framing drug addicts as aggressors rather than victims, the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Administrations' zero-tolerance policies toward drug use made sense. The best known example, and a centerpiece of Ronald Reagan's presidency, was Nancy Reagan's Just Say No Campaign --a phrase she coined while speaking at an Oakland grade school. Almost overnight, thousands of Just Say No groups emerged, which largely targeted white middle-class children. Under the rubric of Just Say No, it was entirely a matter of individual choice to use or become involved in drug use.

Again, the news media was only too happy to cooperate, and the infiltration of crack cocaine into urban areas in the mid-1980s gave them their storyline. By 1986, major news magazines were running cover stories calling crack the The Plague Among Us. The media focused, in particular, on crack cocaine use by African-Americans and the alleged crack baby epidemic, postulating a biological underclass of children who would require state support for the rest of their lives. The media also linked crack babies to other inner-city crime, such as prostitution and gang violence. [C]rack bab[ies] . . . bec[a]me a convenient symbol for an aggressive war on drug users because of the implication that anyone who is selfish enough to irreparably damage a child for the sake of a quick high deserves

Federal and state lawmakers took swift action in an apparent attempt to placate a concerned public. The 1970s saw the centralization of federal drug agencies, including the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and increased federal prosecution of drug use and trafficking. Federal legislation soon followed suit with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, and, later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine. State laws were equally harsh. Perhaps the most notorious was the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York, which increased penalties from two to five years for first-time drug offenders (under the Boggs Act ) and to mandatory fifteen years to life sentences for subsequent offenses.

2. Racial and Penal Segregation

More than one author has suggested that politicians must have known that the Wars on Crime and Drugs would have a disparate impact on African-American communities, and some have argued that lawmakers enacted these policies precisely because they would have such a disparate impact. The impact of these measures is largely undebatable. Between 1970 and 2003, the U.S. prison population increased from 200,000 to 1.4 million. At 780 per 100,000, U.S. incarceration rates are now four to five times higher than Spain, England, and New Zealand and seven to ten times higher than those in most other Western Individual states have seen similar spikes in imprisonment. Since their enactment in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws, for example, have increased New York prison populations by 500%.

These changes have primarily impacted persons of color. While it had long been the case that racial and ethnic minorities were more likely to be arrested, charged, and incarcerated than their white counterparts, these disparities increased considerably during the late 1980s and 1990s. African-Americans constituted about one-third of all state and federal prisoners in the United States in 1960, but by 1995, they made up approximately one-half of the prison population. Between 1980 and 2006, the increase in African-American rates of imprisonment was nearly four times the increase in white rates. Individual states saw similar changes. For example, while African-Americans and Latinos make up just about one-third of New York's population, they constitute 94% of those convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Until its repeal, the federal 100-to-1 sentencing scheme for crack cocaine had a similar effect. In 1992, for example, 92.6% of those sentenced in the United States under the 100-to-1 regime were African-Americans. These numbers are especially troubling because multiple studies have shown that whites use drugs at higher rates than African-Americans and sell drugs at roughly equivalent rates.

By 1999, studies showed that an African-American man born in the 1960s had a one-in-five chance of spending at least one year in prison. For those who had not completed high school, that number climbed to one in three. In 2002, a full 12% of African-American men in their twenties were incarcerated, while in 2000, only 1% of white men in their twenties were incarcerated. This means that today, 33% of African-American men in their twenties are in jail, on probation, or on parole, and 33% of African-American baby boys born in 2001 will spend time behind bars. Amazingly, much of this has happened during a period of falling crime rates, with African-American crime commission rates falling at a faster rate than any other group.


B. The Super-Predator War

The first section of this Part describes the emergence of the iconographic image of the adolescent super-predator as a symbol of juvenile crime in the United States. It then discusses the concomitant adoption of punitive juvenile justice policies throughout the country. Next, it details the ways these policy changes have impacted youth of color.

1. The Coming of the Adolescent Super-Predator

It is remarkable that the proponents of the Wars on Crime and Drugs would turn their sights to adolescents in the early 1990s, especially when one considers the history and purpose of the U.S. juvenile justice system. Established at the turn of the twentieth century, this country's juvenile justice system rested on the prevailing Progressive philosophy that the system should treat, rather than punish, child offenders. In the case of children, the belief was that delinquent acts were not borne of malevolence, but rather were a product of social forces largely beyond the children's control. The Supreme Court emphasized that [t]he child was to be treated and rehabilitated, and the procedures, from apprehension through institutionalization, were to be clinical rather than

The U.S. juvenile justice system has experienced shifts in penal philosophy over time. During the first half of the twentieth century, a belief in rehabilitation and individualized treatment gave way to concern over the indeterminate nature of dispositions. Juvenile offenders often received the worst of both worlds . . . neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children, the Supreme Court lamented in 1966. In response, the Court imported a series of key constitutional safeguards from the adult system during the 1960s and 1970s, including the rights to notice, to counsel, to confront and cross-examine witnesses, to a fair and impartial hearing, and to protections against self-incrimination. With these changes, however, came increased formality and an ideological shift in focus from the best interests of the offender to the gravity of the offense itself.

Nonetheless, few anticipated the changes of the 1990s. While the push for more punitive juvenile justice policies had already begun in the late 1980s as members of both parties witnessed the political benefits of getting tough on crime, a few high-profile incidents aided these efforts. The most notable of these was the infamous Central Park Jogger case. In April 1989, a young, white female jogger was brutally beaten, raped, and left to die in Manhattan's Central Park. Within hours, police arrested and charged a group of seven African-American and Latino teens ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen with rape, assault, and attempted murder. Almost immediately, a new term was coined: the incident was part of a new adolescent practice known as wilding. Local politicians seized on the incident. In the summer of 1989, New York City Mayor Edward Koch called for the death penalty for wilding, deemed the seven suspects monsters, and complained that the juvenile justice system was too lenient. A similar response came from mayoral candidate David Dinkins, who responded with a call for a new antiwilding law.

As crime rates continued to climb in the early 1990s, the calls for stiffer penalties for juvenile offenders reached a fever pitch. Unlike the Wars on Crime and Drugs, however, there was no executive clarion call to arms. The closest thing to a declaration came in the form of a 1995 magazine article. In The Coming of the Super-Predators, former Princeton University political science professor John DiIulio warned of an oncoming tsunami of adolescent super-predators, morally-impoverished youth who had grown up surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless These were kids who have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future . . . . stone-cold One year later, DiIulio projected that by the year 2010 there [would be] approximately 270,000 more juvenile super-predators on the streets than there were in In My Black Crime Problem, and Ours, Professor DiIulio predicted that the black crime rate, both black-on-black and black-on-white, is increasing, so that as many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black

The news media ran with this narrative. In a headline announcing that the super-predators have arrived, Newsweek asked, Should We Cage the New Breed of Vicious Borrowing rhetoric from the Wars on Crime and Drugs, the theme of moral depravity again played a central role. Kids Without a Conscience? asked the cover of People magazine in June 1997. The style of news reporting that dominated the era only reinforced the message. In its coverage of juvenile offending, news media often relied on a technique called episodic framing. Instead of placing an individual incident in its broader statistical, political, or socioeconomic context, the news media frequently reported juvenile offenses as discrete events, which, social scientists claim, encourages viewers to associate the conduct in question with the moral deficiency of the individual, rather than her broader social milieu. When the topic is crime, episodic framing galvanizes support for more punitive crime policies.

By all indications, the American public was listening. Even as national crime rates were dropping steadily, a flurry of public opinion polls conducted in the late 1990s revealed the American public's fear of violent juvenile offenders. Polls also revealed that the public substantially overestimated the likelihood of being victimized by a person of color. Nearly twice as many respondents to a 1994 poll, for example, believed that they were more likely to be victimized by a perpetrator of color than a white perpetrator when, in reality, the vast majority of crimes are intra-racial.

Public opinion polls also revealed a concern that America's youth had lost their moral compasses. A 2001 report that the Frameworks Institute published, which compiled information from dozens of surveys on perceptions of youth, was particularly illuminating. Among the findings the study reported were the following: in response to a 1998 survey, only 16% of Americans said that young people under the age of 30 share[d] most of their moral and ethical In a separate 1998 poll, when asked what comes to mind when they think of teens, nearly three-quarters of respondents gave negative descriptions, such as rude, wild, or irresponsible. Eighty-two percent of adults who responded to a 1998 poll felt that youth [did] not have a strong sense of right and wrong, up from 46% in 1965 and 34% in 1952. Not surprisingly, respondents overwhelmingly endorsed punitive responses to juvenile offending.

Ostensibly to ameliorate these concerns, lawmakers responded. Between 1992 and 1997 alone, legislatures in forty-five states enacted or enhanced waiver laws that made it easier to transfer juvenile offenders to the criminal justice system. Thirty-one states gave both juvenile and criminal courts expanded sentencing authority over juvenile offenders, forty-seven states enacted laws that modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions by making records and proceedings more open, and twenty-two states expanded the role of juvenile crime victims in the juvenile justice process. California's Proposition 21 is among the harshest of these laws. Proposition 21 requires adult trials for juveniles as young as fourteen years of age if they have been charged with a list of enumerated felonies. It also transfers absolute discretion from judges to prosecutors to determine which juveniles should be tried as adults, weakens confidentiality laws, toughens gang laws, and expands California's three-strikes law for both juveniles and adults. Ironically, voters ratified the referendum in 2000, a time when arrest rates among juveniles were hitting their lowest point in thirty years.

The net effect of these laws was astounding. Between 1985 and 1994, the number of delinquency cases waived to criminal court climbed 83%, from 7200 to 13,200. In 1988, approximately 1600 juvenile offenders were confined in adult jails; by 1997, there were more than 9000. By some estimates, nearly 2000 juvenile offenders in adult jails were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole. To put this in perspective, no other country in the Western world sends juveniles to prison for life, and by 2005, every country except the United States and Somalia had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly forbids life imprisonment without possibility of release for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of

In the late 1990s, Congress jumped into the fray. In 1997, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997, which proposed multiple get tough measures for juvenile offenders, including a provision that lowered the minimum age for trial of capital offenses from eighteen to sixteen. Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the Act's sponsors, explained that [p]eople are expecting us to do something about these violent teenagers. We've got to move on Although it was never put to a vote in 1997, the Act resurfaced in 1999 after the shootings at Columbine High School. The proposed Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act of 1999 again included multiple measures to make it easier for prosecutors to try children as adults. Although it subsequently died in conference, the Act failed only because of an attached provision that strengthened firearm control laws. Ironically, while Congress was prepared to exact harsh punishments on juveniles in the name of public safety, it was not willing to adopt laws that would keep firearms out of their hands.

2. Disproportionate Minority Contact

These so-called get tough laws of the 1990s had by far the harshest impact on youth of color. While social scientists had known for decades that adolescents of color were more likely to be arrested, detained, formally charged in juvenile court, transferred to adult court, and confined to secure residential facilities than their white counterparts, these disparities soared during the 1980s and 1990s. Statistics suggest that four out of five youth newly held in detention between 1983 and 1997 were juveniles of color. The transfer of juveniles of color to adult court was equally, if not more, disproportionate. A 2000 study, for example, showed that 82% of youth charged in adult court in eighteen of the largest jurisdictions in the country were youth of color and that African-American (43%) and Latino (37%) youth were more likely than white youth (26%) to receive a sentence of incarceration. These numbers persist even today.

Research suggests that these disparities cannot be attributed entirely to crime commission rates. While differential offending contributes to disproportionality, research shows that the statistical differences between the offending patterns of white youth and minority youth are simply not great enough to account for the racial disparities observed at any of the processing points in the juvenile justice system. To date, of the hundreds of multiple regression studies that have been conducted on disparities in juvenile justice, nearly two-thirds have documented a race effect on decision-making, which suggests that race-neutral criteria cannot, by themselves, account for the disparities observed in processing outcomes. In other words, but for the presence of race bias, overrepresentation would not exist to the same degree.


III. The Social Psychology of Social War

What accounts for the race effects observed in these studies? And, more generally, why is it that we, as a nation, have continued to enact laws and policies that have devastated such a large segment of our adolescent population? In part, we can blame the social psychology of social war. This Part summarizes a wealth of contemporary research that shows that humans react to, interpret, and make decisions about the environment, and each other, largely from a series of unconscious cognitive associations and dissociations. When stimulated or primed, these processes are automatic; they happen whether we want them to or not. Importantly, several studies conducted over the last decade suggest that the political posturing, media imagery, war rhetoric, and Manichean moralizing associated with the super-predator war, and with American social wars in general, have an especially potent effect on this dynamic. These images and ideas influence not only the content of our stereotypes of the enemy, but also the degree to which we rely on those stereotypes. Ultimately, they also influence our willingness to embrace measures that punish and incapacitate the enemy.


A. Social Cognition Theory

Most research suggests that overt racism and conscious discrimination have declined steadily since the 1960s. What persists, however, are unconscious racial stereotypes that are less visible but no less pernicious. To better understand how unconscious bias works, a brief primer on social cognition theory is warranted.

In an effort to cope with what would otherwise be an overwhelming environment, humans unconsciously engage in a series of complex cognitive processes that enable us to parse and react quickly to incoming information. When we receive external stimuli, we selectively map the information into established categories. For example, when we encounter another human being, we might map our perceptions into categories such as age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. The categorization of these perceptions activates cognitive structures called schemas, and from the information or meanings embedded in our schemas, we draw inferences and make predictions about the person. These meanings may include both cognitive beliefs (stereotypes) and affective feelings (prejudices) about the groups with which we associate the person. According to psychologists, our respective categories and schemas influence every aspect of our cognition--what information we receive, how that information is classified, how we react to it, and how we remember it. More often than not, these cognitive processes are automatic; they happen almost instantaneously and whether we want them to or not.

Research shows that we develop racial meanings, beliefs, and feelings about members of other racial groups, from both direct and vicarious experiences. Our direct experiences with racial others are generally more influential, but our vicarious experiences may be more numerous. Vicarious experiences may include films, music, the internet, television shows, newspapers, or political speeches that in some way depict, describe, or report on members of different racial groups. Whites, who by and large live in homogenous communities, are especially likely to rely upon vicarious experiences when evaluating racial others.

In many cases, however, the material presented through our vicarious experiences is imbalanced in some way. This is particularly true when it comes to crime news reporting. Over the last two decades, multiple studies have demonstrated that people of color, and African-Americans in particular, are overrepresented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims of crime in the media. A well-known study of local news programming in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s, for example, found that the media was 22% more likely to show African-Americans committing violent crime than nonviolent crime, while, in reality, they were equally likely to be arrested for both violent crime and nonviolent crime. White Americans, on the other hand, were 31% more likely to be depicted committing a nonviolent crime than a violent crime, when, in fact, they were just 7% more likely to be arrested for a nonviolent crime. Studies have also shown that the news media over-represents the incidence of interracial crime. Not surprisingly, when vicarious experiences with racial others are imbalanced, the racial meanings in our schemas become imbalanced.

Until recently, the challenge has been to gauge the content of an individual person's racial schemas. Because most of us are unwilling to admit to or are unaware that we possess racial stereotypes and prejudices, self-reported attitudes are not helpful. Instead, social psychologists have begun to develop indirect ways to measure racial meanings. The most recent phase of this research has sought to take advantage of the automaticity of bias through what are called reaction-time studies. Scientists trigger automatic cognitive processes through subliminal exposure to external stimuli, a technique known as priming, which activates a subject's racial schema without triggering conscious awareness of either the prime or its impact. Subjects are then asked to perform a task. When the prime and the task are consistent with the subject's schema, the subject's response time is faster; when they are inconsistent, it is slower. The time differentials observed are viewed as measurements of an individual's implicit bias.

A series of studies researchers at the University of Chicago conducted over the last decade are illustrative. In these experiments, researchers asked subjects to distinguish between computerized images of guns and hand tools. Just before each object appeared, a human face appeared on the screen. In some instances, the face was black; in others, it was white. There were two versions of the experiment. In one, participants were allowed to respond to the objects at their own pace. In the other, they had to respond to each object within half a second. The results were troubling. In the self-paced version, participants detected guns faster in the presence of a black face, and in the split-second version, participants falsely identified guns more often when the face was black than when it was white. Researchers concluded that participants' response time was faster because the black face prime condition and the gun were consistent with subjects' existing racial schemas and drew upon their stereotypes about blacks and gun possession. Perhaps more notable was the fact that, when forced to make a snap judgment, the subjects' stereotypic association between race and violence caused them to misperceive weapons where there were none.

Studies like this one have evolved into an entire industry devoted to measuring implicit bias and a prototype called the Implicit Association Test Not surprisingly, the IAT, along with a host of other tests, has repeatedly documented varying degrees of implicit bias against African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and non-Americans. This implicit bias, in turn, has had demonstrable effects on performance, judgment, and treatment of others. Significantly, recent studies have documented implicit bias not just among members of the general public, but also among police officers, probation officers, prosecutors, capital defense attorneys, and federal magistrate judges who help to administer our justice system.


B. Cognitive Warfare

These cognitive processes are especially susceptible to several features of American social wars. First, actors in social wars constantly rely on negative portrayals of the enemy. Researchers link this reliance to the formation of and frequent reliance upon negative stereotypes. Second, this strategic employment of war rhetoric increases aggression and hostility toward social out-groups. Finally, social wars promote a Manichean mindset, a good versus evil diametric, which increases support for harsher punishment.

By all accounts, the politics, rhetoric, and imagery endemic to the super-predator war was extreme in its demonization and adultification of adolescent offenders. Professors Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg deemed the 1980s and 1990s an era of moral panic about juvenile crime, marked by an exaggeration of the threat adolescent offenders posed and collective hostility toward this group. Politicians and the media were both complicit. As Part II detailed, network and cable television stories portraying adolescent gang-bangers, magazine covers lamenting the moral deterioration of America's youth, and politicians trumpeting laws like Proposition 21 and the federal Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act created a veritable onslaught of information that both implicitly and explicitly linked adolescents, and African-American adolescents in particular, with violent crime.

One study from the height of the super-predator frenzy shows the impact of these influences particularly well. In 1998, political scientists Frank Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar designed an experiment to test the impact of a crime news script. They created four separate versions of a fictitious local newscast that contained a short crime segment in the middle. Before the more than two thousand participants saw the videotape, the researchers asked them to complete a short questionnaire soliciting information about their economic and social backgrounds, their political beliefs, and their customary media habits. They were then divided into four groups. Some participants watched a story in which the alleged perpetrator of a murder was an African-American male. Other subjects were given the same news report, but featuring a white male as the murder suspect. A third group of participants watched the news report edited to exclude information concerning the identity of the perpetrator. A fourth control group saw no crime news story at all. The participants were then asked to complete a second, longer questionnaire that probed their attitudes toward crime and punishment.

The results were astonishing. More than 60% of those who watched the crime report with no reference to a perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70% identified the perpetrator as African-American. White participants who saw the version with the African-American suspect exhibited an increased tendency to attribute crime to individual failings and increased negative attitudes toward African-Americans that exceeded the increases observed in those who saw the version with the white suspect. They also exhibited a statistically significant 6% increase in levels of support for punitive crime policies and more than a 10% increase in levels of what Gilliam and Iyengar referred to as new, hidden, or covert racism.

Second, and perhaps more obvious, is the influence of cognitive processes on war rhetoric, which implicitly casts the target as un-American and exacerbates in-group/out-group hostility. Because war is generally associated with inter-national conflict, it naturally evokes concepts of national identity. In doing so, war rhetoric subtly tends to conflate the proposed in-group with Americanism and implicitly portrays the proposed out-group as un-American. This is particularly important in light of implicit bias research that suggests that Americans of color, including African-Americans, are less easily associated with American than are European-Americans. Exposure to nationalistic symbols has also been found to influence levels of aggression and hostility. In one recent study, researchers subliminally exposed participants to images of the American flag. They were then asked to complete word fragments. Those primed with the flag completed the fragments more often with aggression- and war-related words than those who were not exposed. They also were more prone to display hostile behavior in response to a mild computer-based provocation. Interestingly, researchers observed these effects only for those participants who were exposed to high levels of national news. Although research has not yet been done on social war rhetoric, race, and the punishment of adolescent offenders, the implications are obvious.

Perhaps the most unique effect of social wars is their ability to moralize issues. Once war is declared, the target changes from a problem in search of a solution to a question of moral superiority between two positions. Consider the title of one of the most controversial texts of the 1990s: Body Count: Moral Poverty . . . And How To Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs. Under Body Count's formulation, drug addiction is not an affliction, but a moral choice. By framing the conduct of the proposed out-group as an attack on the moral fiber of society, the proposed in-group can claim moral superiority in the form of self-defense, and immorality is imputed on the out-group as the aggressor. The result is a classic Manichean worldview--good waging war against evil. It follows then that a group that views itself as morally superior to another group is more willing to engage in violent or punitive acts against that group.

What is more surprising is the fact that this moral diametric affects not just those who evaluate a targeted cohort from a distance, the everyday consumer of the nightly news, for example, but also those whose job it is to decide how harshly to punish individual members of that cohort. Two studies of decision-making by juvenile justice practitioners bear this out. They also poignantly illustrate how race seems to inform judgments about an individual's relative morality.

In 1999, in an attempt to determine why African-American youth in three Washington state counties were receiving harsher sentencing recommendations than white youth charged with the same crimes, sociologists George Bridges and Sara Steen conducted a comprehensive analysis of 233 narrative reports that county probation officers wrote. After controlling for factors such as age, gender, and offense history, Bridges and Steen observed that officers' written rationales for sentencing recommendations indicated that they were more likely to attribute criminal behavior of minority youth to internal forces, such as personal failure, inadequate moral character, and personality, and the criminal behavior of white youth to external forces, such as poor home life, lack of appropriate role models, and environment, even when objective risk factors associated with the youth were similar. The officers were also more likely to have a negative reaction to African-American youth when assessing subjective factors, like level of remorse or cooperativeness, and conclude that only state intervention could change their delinquent behavior. To illustrate their point, Bridges and Steen compared the manner in which one probation officer depicted two seventeen-year-old boys, Ed and Lou. Neither had a criminal history, and both were charged with first-degree robbery. Ed, however, was African-American, while Lou was white.

This robbery was very dangerous as Ed confronted the victim with a loaded shotgun. He pointed it at the victim and demanded money be placed in a paper bag. . . . There is an adult quality to this referral. In talking with Ed, what was evident was the relaxed and open way he discussed his lifestyle. There didn't seem to be any desire to change. There was no expression of remorse from the young man. There was no moral content to his comment.

Lou is the victim of a broken home. He is trying to be his own man, but . . . is seemingly easily misled and follows other delinquents against his better judgment. Lou is a tall emaciated little boy who is terrified by his present predicament. It appears that he is in need of drug/alcohol evaluation and treatment. In 2004, Professors Sandra Graham and Brian Lowery expanded on elements of Bridges and Steen's research. The participants included a racially diverse and gender-balanced group of ninety-one juvenile probation officers in Los Angeles. Members of Experiment 1, police officers, were first asked to perform what the researchers called a mind-clearing task, which required them to track a string of letters on a rapidly flashing computer screen. Amid the flashing letters, however, certain officers were subliminally exposed to words commonly associated with African-Americans (such as black, homeboy, rap, etc.), while others were exposed to race-neutral words. The researchers then asked participants to read two vignettes about a hypothetical adolescent who allegedly committed either a property crime or an assault. In both, the race of the offender was left unstated and the scenarios were ambiguous about the causes of the After reading the vignettes, the probation officers rated the offender on various personal traits, such as hostility and immaturity, and made judgments about the offender's culpability, expected recidivism, and deserved In contrast to subjects who did not receive the racial priming, the probation officers who were exposed to the subliminal messaging judged the alleged offender to be less immature and more violent . . . more culpable, more likely to reoffend, and more deserving of punishment, and their global trait ratings were more Amazingly, the results were consistent even among officers who self-reported, and likely believed, that they held no racial bias toward minorities. Taken together, these experiments tell us several important things. First, they reveal that even those whom we might assume to be immune to racial primes and stereotypes linking young black males with criminality, amorality, and adultness (the police and probation officers whose job it is to provide professional assessments of adolescent offenders on a daily basis) are not. Indeed, while the rhetoric of the super-predator war might have influenced them less than members of the general public by virtue of their professional training, it likely affected them nonetheless. Second is the apparent extent to which even subliminal racial primes can influence our perceptions of individuals. That the mere evocation of terms associated with African-Americans could trigger assumptions about the relative culpability of an individual offender is stunning. Third, and perhaps most notable, is the degree to which race aligns with perceived amorality. In the collective subconscious of these decision-makers and, the evidence suggests, in our collective American subconscious, young black males are often associated with adult qualit[ies], little desire to change, no . . . remorse, and no moral content. We perceive them as less immature, more violent, more culpable, more likely to reoffend, and more deserving of punishment than their white counterparts. While these associations may also be the product of the history of race relations in this country, strategic politics, and crime rates inasmuch as they are the product of the super-predator war, we cannot ignore the role of the super-predator war, and social wars in general, in shaping our social cognition.


IV. Conclusion

The rest of the Western world was not immune from the spike in adolescent crime, the political posturing, the public outcry, and the shifts in penal ideology that impacted the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet no other country in the Western world turned so abruptly and completely on its population of adolescent lawbreakers. Plainly, there are important historical, sociological, political, and demographic differences between the United States and other Western nations that influence the relative severity of their juvenile justice policies, but this Article argues that there is also something about the social psychology of these metaphorical, social wars in which our country has been so continually and readily involved. In the case of the super-predator war, these cognitive processes and reverberations have so indelibly altered the meaning of young black male within our society that we are immune to the notion that we are systematically destroying a significant portion of our country's future.

 


 

. Associate Professor, University of Minnesota Law School.

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

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