And Goodwill to all Mankind

As a very young lawyer I had the opportunity to act as junior prosecutor  in a jury trial involving a crime which had occurred in the aftermath of a drunken party on a local first Nations Reserve. I was given the task of leading the evidence of a number of peripheral witnesses, all of whom had attended the bash and had observed the actions of the accused during the evening. All of these witnesses were First Nations.

The presiding judge was Mr. Justice Thomas Burger, who had spent much time in First Nations communities. at the first recess counsel were called into the judge’s chambers and I was gently upbraided by the judge, who drew my attention to the fact that I had been addressing the native witnesses by their first name, whereas white witnesses were being addressed by their title and surname. Although the lapse was completely unconscious I was hugely embarrassed to be called out on my patronizing behavior, and chastened, resolved to guard against such bias in the future. I would, in future, treat all participants in the trial process with the respect they deserve, regardless of race. It is a resolution which I hope I have kept over the years.

I was reminded of Mr. justice Burger’s admonitions recently when I chanced upon an article by Lauren Murrow in the August 2017 edition of Wired magazine  reporting on the research of Dr. Jennifer Eberhard, a social psychologist at Stanford University, who uses data obtained from police body cam footage to recognize patterns of racial disparity when traffic cops interact with members of the public.

Police Body cam transcripts  can now be scanned  and analyzed using newly developed software, for both subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the way police interact with blacks or whites. Dr. Eberhardt’s conclusion is that police are more likely to use abrupt and less respectful language when dealing with African Americans  than with whites. White drivers were more likely to be addressed as “Sir”, for example, and more formal vocabulary employed. When dealing with black drivers often more colloquial language was used,coupled with a more words of command.

The team at Stanford University has built a computer model which can predict the race of a driver interacting with the traffic cop with 68% accuracy based only on the nuances found in the police officers speech.

Machine learning and transcript analysis software have offered another demonstration of what most of us sense intuitively already; that subtle racism exists in our society and can often be manifested, even unconsciously, by those  of us who believe ourselves to be free of prejudice.

Something to think about during this season of ‘goodwill towards all mankind’ and with the season of resolutions just over the horizon.

What will your resolution be?