The Epistemic Pollution of Racism

I have recently finished Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, on which a similarly named television show is based. The book is a detailed blow-by-blow retelling of the famous court case that exercised America. One theme from the book stuck out to me: how all participants in the case—prosecutors, defendants, jurors, police officers, observers—had to battle with a constant sense of epistemic pollution by racism, and to some degree, celebrity culture.

Simpson’s case is famous for splitting opinion along racial lines: while white Americans overwhelmingly thought Simpson guilty, black Americans overwhelmingly thought him innocent; and he was, of course, famously acquitted by a jury which was mostly black and female. (Opinion has shifted somewhat against Simpson in later decades, though a significant difference along racial lines can still be observed.) Faced with a range of difficult-to-deny evidence against Simpson, the defence—the famous “dream team”—decided to focus the case on race: it tried to depict Simpson as an upstanding, successful black man who had been framed by racist, white LAPD officers.

There was little plausibility to the central claim—that police officer Mark Fuhrman had planted a crucial piece of evidence, the famous bloody glove—so most of the defence’s case had to rely on insinuation. But here’s the crux: if you were a black juror, it was understandable that you took Simpson’s side. The LAPD, as Toobin shows, had exceptional problems with racism even when compared with other police departments at the time (and Fuhrman perjured himself when he claimed not to have used racial epithets). It would be impossible for the black jury to forget the racism they were exposed to daily.

The epistemic task of the jury was to determine whether Simpson’s guilt could be established beyond reasonable doubt. But the systematic racism that pervaded all questions of crime and punishment in 1990s Los Angeles made it significantly harder to say whether a black man was guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The possibility of him being framed was just too real: it was not something you could reasonably exclude, at least from the outset. (It’s a different question how convincing the defence’s specific case was. But if you had heard in passing that a black defendant had been framed by a white police officer, it would not have been something you could dismiss easily.)

The more general phenomenon is this: racism expresses itself as an obvious, direct injustice to its victims; but beyond that, it has the indirect effect of diminishing our ability to perceive certain social truths clearly. It reduces our ability to trust strangers, as there is always a nagging doubt that race played a distorting role: whether in the testimony of police officers, or our own judgments of the character of a famous athlete, or in the deliberations of a jury. Racism can even have the effect of making certain experiences unshareable—e.g., of being subtly and constantly discriminated against—experiences which form the necessary background to forming the correct political and social opinions.

These effects are what we might call the epistemic pollution of racism. (I’m not intending this as a great discovery—I’m confident this phenomenon must have already been described somewhere, but I’m not well-read enough in the relevant literature.) Miranda Fricker has introduced the category of epistemic injustice to the literature—cases where someone’s testimony or experiences are discounted because of racial (or some other kind of) prejudice. These I take to be precisely that—injustices which particular individuals commit on other particular individuals. But the epistemic haze distorting our perception of cases like Simpson’s need not itself be unjust—even those innocent of any of the relevant failings will suffer from it.  Rather, it looks like the by-product of living in an unjust society, a structural feature none of us individually could hope to overcome.

The point here is not that we could never be able to perceive certain cases clearly—as Toobin argues, convincingly in my view, the jurors should have found Simpson guilty, even on a standard of reasonable doubt. However, objective judgment on many social issues involving race (as well as class and gender) becomes significantly harder. This, in the end, affects our ability to objectively mete out the appropriate punishment in cases like Simpson’s.

(A second insight in Toobin’s book regards the distorting effect of celebrity. Many people involved in the trial were star-struck by Simpson, or got caught up in the general media frenzy surrounding the case. This also made it significantly harder for everyone involved to form a clear view of the case. In particular, many witnesses with relevant knowledge sold their statements to the media, which diminished their value to the prosecution, as their motives could now be attacked.)

There is also, ultimately, the sense that we cannot trust our own perceptions in a society suffering from structural racism. After all, racial and other biases work subtly and imperceptibly in our own psychology; so you might suffer from various prejudices even if you are quite confident that you don’t. Again, this loss of self-trust is a negligible, secondary bad when compared to the many primary evils of racism. Still, it should be put up on the list with other bads of racism.

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