Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, April 28, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on police lineups
Malcolm Gladwell posts some insights into the effect of race of the success of police lineups on his blog, and it makes for interesting reading. He makes the comments with specific reference to the case in the US were a number of (white) lacrosse players from Duke University are alleged to have raped a black stripper.

The victim picked out two players from the lacrosse team from photographs of all the players, and the two were indicted by a grand jury on that foundation. Gladwell argues that too much weight is given to lineups, as a human's ability to perceive memories with such detail is often flawed. This is more so when dealing with cross-race identification (I.e. a white person identifying a black person or vice versa).

Gladwell states:
"The problem seems to be that when we encounter someone from a different group we process them at the group level. We code the face in our memory under the category black or white, and not under the category of someone with, say, an oval face and brown eyes and a prominent chin. Race, in other words, trumps other visual features that would be more helpful in distinguishing one person from another. Why do we do this? One idea is simply that itÂ?s a result of lack of familiarity: that the more we Â?knowÂ? a racial type, the more sophisticated our encoding becomes. Another idea is that itÂ?s a manifestation of in-group/out-group bias. The thing about coding by group and not by facial feature is that itÂ?s a lot faster. And from an evolutionary standpoint, youÂ?d want to use quicker processing methodologies in dealing with those who come from unfamiliarÂ?and potentially unfriendlyÂ?groups. The bottom line is that the adage that Â?all blacks look the sameÂ? to whites (and all whites look the same blacks) has some real foundation."

This naturally has significant ramifications in a society like ours, especially in apartheid days when white people were actively encouraged by the state to think that "all blacks look the same", and where many black people were undoubtedly unjustly collared from identifications that were based on this premise.

Not that the police really tried to account for these flaws; I can remember when I was young, having police bringing back car-loads of black people from the train station after a robbery at our house, just because "they were running and were suspicious". I can remember, as young as I was, how frightened those guys were, as they were undoubtedly just running to catch the train, yet the police were encouraging us to point the finger at someone - anyone - so that they could get back to the police station.

It really does make you wonder how many innocent people are languishing in our jails from a result of these inherent identification biases.