Racism May Be Built Into Some Courtrooms
Courthouse décor may undermine fairness by encouraging racist decision-making.
Posted June 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Debate has ensued over the fairness of displaying Confederate symbols and memorabilia in a courthouse jury deliberation room.
- Research suggests there is a link between racist symbols and biased behavior.
- Different racial groups are impacted by many aspects of the legal system and governmental messages may contribute to bias in proceedings.
by Melissa Anderson, MS, University at Albany, State University of New York, Department of Psychology, and Cynthia J. Najdowski, Ph.D., University at Albany, State University of New York, Department of Psychology
Last December, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals granted Tim Gilbert a new trial after determining his 2020 conviction in Giles County had resulted from a constitutionally unfair trial. Gilbert, a Black man, was judged by an all-White jury, but that was not the basis of his appeal. Instead, among other things, he was concerned about the décor in the deliberation room in which the jury decided his fate.
Gilbert’s jury deliberated in the U.D.C. Room, named in tribute to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization dedicated to honoring the memory of Confederate soldiers. The room includes a Confederate flag, a Confederate leader’s portrait, and other Confederate memorabilia. Gilbert argued that this setting created an atmosphere of tolerance toward racial prejudice and improperly emboldened jurors to express racial bias, thus interfering with his right to a fair trial in an impartial environment. The appellate court agreed, stating that “having the jury deliberate in a room festooned with Confederate memorabilia and maintained by the U.D.C. implied that the court subscribes to the [C]onfederate principles.”
In fact, psychological research shows that racist symbols and racist behavior tend to go together. As an extreme example, the prevalence of Confederate statues in southern U.S. counties is positively correlated with the number of lynchings that took place there. What does psychology say about the potential for racist memorabilia to increase the risk of unjust trial outcomes? Dedicating a room to an organization that represents certain ideas is likely to convey that those ideas are socially acceptable and normative. Of concern is that exposure to expressions of prejudice increases prejudice, including among members of marginalized groups. Even if jurors serving in Gilbert’s trial did not consciously reflect on the Confederate symbols or notice an impact on their decision-making, the presence of the items may have triggered implicit racist stereotypes and attitudes or “primed” jurors to unconsciously think or act in racist ways. Thus, psychological research suggests that Gilbert’s concerns were well-founded.
Unfortunately, the Giles County Courthouse is not an isolated example of how systemic racism is embedded physically within halls of justice. In 2020, Terrance Shipp Jr., a Black man, faced charges in a Virginia courthouse filled with portraits of White former judges, some of whom had issued racially discriminatory rulings. Such displays suggest that the justice system is run by White people for White people. An important consideration is how Black people and other people of color feel when they encounter racist symbolism in courtrooms. What is the psychological experience of jurors of color who are made to deliberate in spaces like the U.D.C. Room? How does the symbolism affect Black defendants’ perceptions of justice? Most Black people experience Confederate memorials as symbols of racial oppression. When primed to think that the government values such memorials, Black people experience a reduced sense of belonging. Courtroom displays supporting racism are likely to have the same psychological effects.
The Giles County Courthouse’s U.D.C. Room was established in the 1930s, and, according to the judge who presided over Gilbert’s trial, juries have deliberated there regularly for at least the past half-century. Since Gilbert raised his appeal, local officials decided to remove some of the Confederate items from the room, but the room continues to be dedicated to the U.D.C. It remains unclear whether the courthouse will continue to use the space as a deliberation room, but existing psychological science argues against doing so. Fair trials depend on the principle that the government should not convey any message to individuals involved in legal proceedings. Psychological research that shows how damaging racist symbolism is to justice could support efforts aimed at ensuring U.S. courtrooms are no longer permitted to reflect, endorse, or perpetuate White supremacy.
This post is also published in agreement with APA’s Monitor on Psychology as a “Judicial Notebook” column.
Edited By: Ashley M. Votruba, J.D., Ph.D., SPSSI Blog Editor, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska - Lincoln