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Racial Stereotypes and the Criminal Justice System: The Tragedy of Scottsboro

By Elaine Cassel

Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

Racial profiling--law enforcement targeting of ethnic minorities for investigation and arrest--is receiving increasing public scrutiny. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (PBS, 2000) revisits a disgraceful incident in American criminal justice history.

In 1931, the lives of nine innocent young black men (the youngest was 13) were irreversibly interrupted when they became caught up in a despicable policy of white prejudices and discriminatory criminal justice policies. A freight train traveling through northern Alabama was carrying black and white young men (and two young women) who were stealing rides. A fight ensued when a group of white youths ordered the blacks off the train; "This is a white man's train," they said. Some of the black youths threw the threatening white kids off the train. The remaining whites complained to the stationmaster at the next stop, who sent word to the depot in Paint Rock, Alabama that a "gang of blacks beat up some white boys." When the train arrived at Paint Rock, a posse of sheriff's deputies and citizens was waiting to arrest the black boys accused of fighting. Two young women, who feared being charged with vagrancy for stealing a ride, told the sheriff that the black boys had gang-raped them.

With that lie began what is considered one of the greatest tragedies in American criminal justice history. Within twelve days the boys were put on trial in Scottsboro, the county seat. The charge--raping white women; the penalty if convicted--execution in the electric chair. The film Scottsboro depicts not just the racism in the trials, but the vagaries of eyewitness testimony, the motives of witnesses who lie, police brutality, the disparate treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system (with none serving on juries, for instance), trying juveniles as adults, and a public mentality in which the stereotype overruled reason. That stereotype--that black men had an insatiable appetite for sex with white women and that no white woman was safe in the presence of a black man--led angry mobs in the early 1900s to take "justice" into their own hands and lynch more than 5,000 black men accused of raping white women.

The trials of the Scottsboro "boys," as they are commonly known, were another kind of lynching. They took place in an Alabama courtroom where prejudice, stereotyping, and emotionality were victorious over the rule of law. After three trials (the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the boys' convictions twice) and years of incarceration awaiting execution, the boys were released from prison as hardened men, battered by scores of beatings and deprivations at the hands of prison guards and embittered by the injustices perpetrated against them.

Social psychology helps explain the mechanism that underlies the Scottsboro debacle. Stereotypes are born of the human tendency to categorize others. Part of the power of stereotypes is that they often are activated without awareness, operating at an unconscious level, in a process known as automatic stereotyping.

Automatic stereotypes are more easily activated in the midst of great prejudice, as existed in the South in the early 1900s. A federal civil rights statute guaranteeing blacks equal protection of the legal system could not erase the image born of one hundred and fifty years of sociocultural and political indoctrination. For those under its insidious spell, the stereotype of the black male as a dangerous sexual predator could be activated just by seeing a black man. Indeed, white jurors' repeated convictions of the Scottsboro defendants (they were convicted by three different juries) in the face of exculpatory evidence perpetuated the stereotype. Southern newspapers continued to support the prosecutions until public attention from the rest of the country and Europe began to embarrass even the most belligerent Alabamians. Ironically, the last living Scottsboro defendant, Clarence Norris, was pardoned by Alabama's Governor George Wallace in 1976, with the pardon papers admitting that the defendants were innocent.

Efforts to suppress stereotypes are often counter-productive, leading to further entrenchment of the unwanted thought. Social psychologists refer to this as the rebound effect. Research indicates that attempts to suppress stereotypes may be doomed to failure unless people are motivated to do so and have the necessary attentional resources and energy.

The vestiges of racism in the criminal justice system depicted in Scottsboro are still with us--not just in racial profiling for traffic stops and arrests but in disparate convictions and punishment for crimes. Nowhere is that disparity more evident than on death row. Black men are more likely to be sentenced to die than are white men convicted of the same capital offenses. Ending racial profiling and racism in the criminal justice system won't be easy, but the integrity of the process depends on it. Social psychologists can play an important role in educating law enforcement officers--and all citizens--about how to end the self-perpetuating mechanisms of stereotyping and prejudice.

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy can be purchased online at The video is generally available in public and academic libraries. Link to the website for the video from the PBS home page and learn more about the Scottsboro trials and what happened to the defendants after their release. Stories of Scottsboro by James Goodman (Vintage, 1994) relates the story from the perspectives of its many participants--the boys themselves, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, jurors, townspeople, and the two false accusers.

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