Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Race and the Criminal Justice System, Explained With Wine

Here's a good overview of something most of us have long suspected: wine descriptors and reviews are complete and utter bullshit. In every possible way. Go ahead and read it; the linked article is both short and entertaining. But the highlights are that in one study when wine experts were served the exact same glass of white wine twice in a row, with the only difference being that one was dyed red, none of them knew they were being duped, despite all the flowery language they put in to describing the two "different" wines. In another study, experts again gave dramatically different rankings to the same wine depending on whether it was served from an expensive-looking bottle or one that appeared to be generic and low-cost.

There's a lot more evidence offered in the article, but these two examples suffice to make the point -- it's clear that what these supposed wine experts are really basing their judgements on have nothing to do with the wine itself. Rather, it's obvious their judgements have everything to do with perceptions of the "class" of the wine (how expensive, and therefore, how supposedly good it is) and with various other stereotypes about what certain wines are supposed to be like.

This in and of itself isn't too shocking -- obviously people are going to be influenced by their perceptions. But where it starts to get really informative is in examples like this when their perceptions are demonstrably and empirically false, and yet still trump their actual experience. That is, in the same wine/different bottles experiment, the experts' opinions of the wine were shaped entirely by their perceptions of the wine's trappings, even when these were directly contradicted by the actual wine. In other words, what they actually experienced had far, far less impact on their pronouncements than what they (consciously or not) felt like they were supposed to be experiencing.

So what does this have to do with the criminal justice system? Well, this is exactly how race operates in our criminal justice system. It's not that there are a bunch of incredibly racist cops, prosecutors, and judges all thinking "gee, how can we fuck over people of color today?" Instead, the supposed experts of our criminal justice system are acting in the exact same manner as the supposed wine experts -- they're basing their judgements not off of any form of empirical reality (indeed, said reality often directly contradicts their judgements), but instead basing them off their socialized beliefs about how groups of people act or conduct themselves.

And it's a pretty easy process to document. Most people probably already know that a black defendant is more likely to be prosecuted and more likely to receive a harsh sentence than a white defendant, holding all other factors equal. But the fact that such decisions are strongly based on skin color becomes even more obvious when comparing the prosecution and sentencing of black men to one another; black men with very dark pigmentation get the worst sentences of all, and it proceeds up the color spectrum to the point where very light-skinned black defendants are found guilty and sentenced at rates fairly comparable to their white counterparts.

There's about a million more studies I could cite here, but the point is, whether it's judging wine or judging people, it's clear most people, even experts, base their decisions far more on their socialization than on the pertinent facts of that particular case. When that happens in wine tasting, it just leads stupid people who follow wine rankings to waste money on expensive wine. When it happens in the criminal justice system, it's a fucking travesty.

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