Capital Ideas Blog

After Ferguson: Small steps to address racism

By Chelsea Vail
August 18, 2014

From: Blog


The ongoing crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, incited by the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, demands—and is receiving—national media attention. But as unrest in the St. Louis suburb subsides, so will reporters scatter and coverage dissipate.

Of course, most racism happens not in the dramatic, explosive, periodic, attention-grabbing way, but in ways smaller, more mundane, daily, and unremarked-upon. This kind of racism is so un-newsworthy, it barely elicits more than a shrug. 

For example, you may not be surprised to learn that juries formed from an all-white jury pool convict black defendants 16 percentage points more often than white defendants. But more importantly, researchers have found a way to equalize conviction rates by race, and it doesn't even require that all juries have a black member. 

It's perhaps as straightforward as returning to 12-member juries instead of six, which have proliferated as a cost-cutting measure (hat tip to Alex Tabarrok). 

Black defendants (as indicated in data from two Florida counties) are at a disadvantage relative to their white counterparts in that jurors tend to go easier on those of their own race, and there are far fewer black citizens available to ‘balance out’ juries. The good news is that it only takes one black person in the jury pool (he doesn’t even have to make it onto the jury) to make a difference in the ideological makeup of the jury (the authors created a model of jury selection to support this assertion). 

There are other small steps we can take toward a more egalitarian society. In one case, research has counseled that simply making people (NBA referees) aware of racial bias (in their foul calls) can be enough to correct their behavior. In other areas, there is not yet a clear solution, or even a clear understanding of the problem—racial bias on the part of hiring managers, and in dating, to name a few. The research we cover in the Summer 2014 cover story and accompanying documentary, below, will give you plenty to think about, both while the protests rage in Ferguson, and after. 

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