Race and Self-Defense
ANOTHER CULTURAL NORM—the racial stereotype*—is pervasive in this society. Like masculinity and heterosexuality norms, racial stereotypes are a feature of contemporary American culture. Like other norms, race norms work beneath the surface, helping certain claims of reasonableness appear more credible than others.1
What is a stereotype? Jody Armour explains that stereotypes are well-learned sets of associations that result in automatic, gut-level responses.2 Stereotypes are correlational constructs based on an individual's membership in an identifiable group, such as the idea that most Blacks are good athletes, most Mexicans are poor, and most Asians are smart. All of us are influenced by stereotypes, even the most egalitarianminded of us.
In self-defense cases, racial stereotypes can influence the reasonableness determination in a myriad of ways. If the victim belongs to a racial group whose members are perceived as violent or hot-blooded, jurors may perceive ambiguous actions by the victim as more hostile than they actually are. Conversely, if the defendant belongs to a racial group whose members are perceived as violent and dangerous but the victim belongs to a racial group whose members are not marked by stereotypes of violence and dangerousness, jurors maybe less willing to believe the defendant's claim of self-defense.
Race norms can also affect the reasonableness determination in other, less obvious, ways. According to social cognition theory, people tend to emphasize the positive attributes of those who are perceived to be like them and the negative traits of those who are perceived to be different or other.3 We have all seen examples of this in real life. If you
When I use the term “racial stereotype,” I refer to both racial and ethnic stereo-
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Publication information: Book title: Murder and the Reasonable Man: Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom. Contributors: Cynthia Lee - Author. Publisher: New York University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 137.
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