On February 20 a panel hosted by the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law discussed what current research in psychology and neurology reveals about the roots of racism, and how those insights can help address racial inequality in the US legal system. The conversation included Jennifer Richeson, Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale University; BJ Casey, Professor of Psychology at Yale University; and Kim Taylor-Thompson, Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law—all members of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, a collation associated with Vanderbilt University that funds and promotes interdisciplinary research furthering social justice. The panel was moderated by Vincent Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law.

Vincent SoutherlandTaylor-Thompson emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary discussion when examining racial inequality, and suggested that such an approach is rarer in the law than in other fields. “We are afraid of what [cognitive science and social psychology] might reveal,” she said. “And we often don’t want to see, as a legal system, the kinds of patterns that often develop and the kinds of choices that we make and the disparities that result from those choices. And a lot of these disciplines shine a light on that.”

BJ CaseyRecent census data has revealed a “majority-minority shift” in racial demographics, which suggests that the US is trending towards a non-white racial majority. According to Richeson, a fearful reaction among those who benefit from the status quo has helped drive increased efforts to reduce immigration. Fear of minorities has also contributed to the mass incarceration of minority offenders and the shooting of unarmed black adolescents by law enforcement, said Richeson.

Casey, whose research on adolescent brain development was cited by the US Supreme Court in decisions ending the juvenile death penalty and life imprisonment without parole for juveniles, suggested that such shootings can result from the way law enforcement officials respond to black children or interpret their reactions.

Jennifer Richeson“There are perceptual studies in which even just pigmentation of the skin can lead us to label individuals as more threatening or associated with more criminal behavior, and so a lot of this bias is driving who we target in terms of who we arrest,” Casey said.

Casey called this phenomenon a “double-edged sword”: Awareness that they are being targeted by police increases stress for the youths likely to be targeted, and can cause them to respond by fighting or fleeing. Brain studies in the past decade have revealed that during adolescence, the “vulcanized” or logic-driving capacity of the brain is still developing, making adolescents more likely to engage in emotionally driven responses and less likely to consider the long-term consequences of their actions.

Kim Taylor-ThompsonNear the end of the discussion, Southerland asked the panelists what, in light of their research, makes them hopeful.  “Hope can be a trap,” Richeson said, adding that those who want to see racial biases change should keep agitating and advocating for the change they want to see.

“Whether it is law following culture or culture following law, those of us who are lawyers in the room have to pay attention,” Taylor-Thompson added. “It’s not enough to have a win in the courtroom or get a judge to see something differently. We really have to start saying, ‘How are we changing the public conversation about this?’”


Watch video of the entire event here: 

Posted March 20, 2018