Indirect and Direct Effects of Race and Ethnicity

We have room here to summarize this evidence briefly, with fuller treatments available elsewhere (Johnson et al., 2015; Walker et al., 2018). To begin to summarize this evidence, we must first distinguish between the indirect effects of race and ethnicity on legal outcomes and their direct effects on legal outcomes. By indirect effects, we mean that people of color are generally much poorer and otherwise disadvantaged than whites and thus have worse legal outcomes than whites because of their lower socioeconomic status (SES). By direct effects, we mean that it is the race and ethnicity of people of color themselves that leads to their worse legal outcomes, because of bias against them by actors in the legal system.

Regarding indirect effects, low-income people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are worse off in the legal system because, simply put, they lack money. The next section on social class discusses this dynamic further. Given this evidence, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are indeed unequal within the legal system, regarding both civil cases and criminal cases, because of their lower SES. All things equal, these groups’ lower SES renders them at a significant disadvantage in the civil and criminal justice arenas compared to whites facing similar legal issues.

Regarding direct effects, we must first acknowledge that there is actually little research on racial and ethnic bias in the civil legal system. However, because racial and ethnic prejudice exists in American society as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that it exists in the civil legal system and that it thus results in worse outcomes for people of color in this branch of the legal system. But much more research is needed on this matter before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

Fortunately, there is much research on the direct effects of race and ethnicity in the criminal justice system: the behavior of police, including the use of excess force and arrest; the various practices of prosecutors; and the sentencing practices ofjudges. Although this huge body of evidence is more complex than might be assumed, it does point to enduring and significant direct effects of race and ethnicity on legal outcomes at every stage of the criminal justice system. These effects stem from racial and ethnic bias by police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice actors.

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