This weekend saw a verdict in the trial of Michael Dunn, accused of killing Florida teen Jordan Davis in 2012. The jury found Dunn guilty on three counts of attempted murder, but declared a mistrial on the murder charge for Davis’ death. According to reports from Al Jazeera America, Dunn’s attorney argued that “there were no signs Dunn was planning the shooting, only firing his gun when he saw Davis wielding a weapon from inside the vehicle and felt threatened.” However, Dunn is white and Davis was black and—with echoes of the George Zimmerman trial still fresh in public memory—supporters of the prosecution argue that shooting was racially motivated and premeditated.
In cases like these, the argument often breaks down to whether violence was racially-motivated or a “colorblind” act of self-defense. However, race structures all parts of the criminal justice system.
Self-defense isn’t as colorblind as we think. Research in social psychology shows that race affects the way we perceive and react to threatening situations.
- Joshua Correll, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Bernd Wittenbrink. 2002. “The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83(6):1314-1329.
- Jennifer Eberhardt, Phillip Atiba Goff, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and Paul Davies. 2004. “Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87(6):876-893.
These individual reactions aggregate into big social problems, where race and social class impact how jurors and law enforcement make decisions about policing and punishment.
- Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Patricia Warren. 2009. “Explaining and Eliminating Racial Profiling.” Contexts 8(2):34-39
- Scott Phillips. 2009. “Status disparities in the capital of capital punishment.” Law and Society Review 43(4): 807-837.
- Mark Bradbury and Marian Williams. 2013. “Diversity and Citizen Participation The Effect of Race on Juror Decision Making.” Administration & Society, 45(5), 563-582.
For a more detailed summary of racial threat experiments, see Sociological Images’ coverage of this work during last year’s Zimmerman trial.