Friday, December 03, 2021

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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.

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

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