Playing the race card: Making race salient in defence opening and closing statements


Purpose. Researchers have reported that making a Black defendant's race salient reduces White jurors' tendency to find Black defendants guilty (Sommers & Ellsworth, 2000). We examined whether making race salient by including racially salient statements in the defenceattorney's opening and closing statements (i.e., ‘playing the race card’) reduced White jurors' racial bias against a Black defendant.

Method. We obtained scores on racial attitudes for 151 White college students who participated in an experiment where defendant race (Black, White) and race salience (not salient, salient) were manipulated in a between-subjects design. Participants read one of four trial stimuli and completed dependent measures.

Results. ‘Playing the race card’ reduced White juror racial bias as White jurors' ratings of guilt for Black defendants were significantly lower when the defence attorney's statements included racially salient statements. White juror ratings of guilt for White defendants and Black defendants were not significantly different when race was not made salient. This effect was separate from jurors' level of prejudice (as measured by racial attitudes) as high prejudice participants were more likely than low prejudice participants to find the Black defendant guilty, independent of the race salience manipulation.

Conclusion. Our study indicated that an explicit attempt by a defence attorney to ‘play the race card’ was a beneficial trial strategy adefence attorney could use to reduce White jurors' bias towards Black defendants. However, the beneficial effect of such a strategy may not reduce White jurors' bias towards Black defendants for all White jurors.



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Legal and Criminological Psychology



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2010 The British Psychological Society