Judging a Book By Its Cover | The Daily Star
08:25 PM, June 28, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:40 PM, June 28, 2020

Judging a Book By Its Cover

One of the most controversial topics taught at police academies is Lombroso's theory of anthropological criminology. Developed in the 1870s by merging phrenology and physiognomy, Cesare Lombroso's theory states that criminality is inherited, and someone "born criminal" could be identified by their physical defects. Years later, not only was this theory proven to be pseudoscientific but deeply racist. You see, Lombroso was one of those people who believed in the superiority of the white race, so he mainly used subjects of other races for his research. And yet, some of the practices carried on by him are still, subconsciously if not deliberately, practised in today's law enforcement and judgement.

Before we delve deeper into this topic, I want you to understand the meaning of two very important terms, physiognomy and thin slicing. 

Physiognomy is the practice of assessing one's character based on their physical attributes and thin slicing is a psychological method by which people can draw on their expertise and socio-cultural context to make quick decisions under pressure. Under normal circumstances, thin slicing is a very useful procedure in identifying criminals but combined with inexperience, prejudice or usage of physiognomy, it turns into a double-edged sword. Now, make no mistake, the keyword here is "identify". Charging or sentencing someone for a crime is an entirely different topic that requires far more proof, or we should hope so.

In the early 1920s, crime-infested Chicago had a series of cases against women who had allegedly killed their husbands or boyfriends. Two such women were Sabella Nitti and Beulah Annan. While Annan was acquitted even when the proof against her was concrete, Nitti was found guilty and given a death sentence despite there being very little-to-no proof. Here's how the two women were considered to be different: Beulah Annan was a conventionally good looking white woman while Sabella Nitti was an Italian farmer who was considered to be nothing like Annan in the eyes of a racist jury. In fact, the case against Sabella Nitti was built primarily on her appearance, leaning on sexism and racism to make her seem animalistic enough to be capable of murdering her husband. Nitti was eventually acquitted, but only after her new lawyers transformed her into a relatively fashionable woman of her time.

The fact that this incident took place almost a hundred years ago should be enough to relax, but several cases have occurred that easily prove that our biases are still alive and kicking. One of the latest media coverages of the aforementioned issue can be seen in the Netflix series 100 Humans. We're introduced to an experiment where two groups of fifty people each, are asked to act as jurors and convict actors posing as criminals. One group was shown a set of pictures of conventionally good-looking actors while the other was shown pictures of conventionally worse-looking actors. Both sets were accompanied by the same description of their crimes and nobody except the hosts were aware of the fact that the criminals were actors. On average, people whose features fit conventional white standards of beauty had their sentences reduced by eight years. Just like the 1920s, attractive people had been sympathised with, while their less attractive counterparts had their morals questioned harshly. During a discussion, a major part of jurors seemed to agree that the good-looking criminals possessed weapons because they were in a risky business and had to protect themselves while their complements were most definitely savage killing machines. It would be safe to place a bet on the fact that most of the jurors on 100 Humans probably never studied Lombroso's theory.

So where did this prejudice come from?

Credit should most definitely be given to the fixated representation of criminals in the media in having a hand in creating this pickle. Take a moment to ponder this, how many times have you witnessed a black or Muslim convict get denigrated and dehumanised on the news while a white person with a similar crime record is observed through more sympathetic lenses? Or, how many times have you come across the pigeonholing of black and Muslim identities in TV shows and movies, based on how they dress and look when they play roles of criminals? If the criminal is a black person, he is seen wearing hoodies and gold jewellery; if Muslim, he is seen donning a long, bushy beard with kohl-smudged eyes. Could a continuous representation of criminals like this not tattoo a permanent picture of how criminals look onto one's brain? Try to recall all those times that you may have felt uncomfortable around people who looked similar to what I just described. If this were to happen to you, could it also not happen to the fellow officer doing random checks on the street? 

It would be unfair to blatantly state that police officers only look for one or two types of appearances when they're doing random searches, but it would be even worse to not acknowledge the impact of this representation and prejudice on their judgement, especially when it scars a victim of unfair treatment so deeply. A recent study done by the Sociology department at Florida State University shows the very real implications of unfair police treatment on people. The study found that those who reported unfair treatment had shorter telomeres and the phenomenon was more pronounced in black men. Telomeres are structures that are found at the ends of chromosomes and are responsible for protecting DNA integrity. Not only is this the shortening of telomeres a biological indicator of stress but it could also be responsible for future cardiovascular diseases.

The writer has once again forgotten to buy butter. Remind her at n.nusaibaah@gmail.com

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