Complexity Explorer Santa Few Institute

Lecture: Crime and Punishment

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4.2 Language & Perception » Department of Justice report

Take a moment to look at the US Department of Justice report, describing the investigation conducted into the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, by police officer Darren Wilson. (Darren Wilson's account begins on page 12. Note that the description is explicit and may be disturbing. For context, Darren Wilson and Michael Brown were of approximately the same height and weight.) As introduced in Dr. Sethi's lecture, note the words that Darren Wilson used to describe Michael Brown.

  • How can language influece our perception? How can language perpetuate prejudice?

Darren Wilson's description cites how Michael Brown appeared to him - "demon", "psychotic", "hostile", "crazy", "aggressive" - in demeaning and subjective terms.

  • Is there general agreement on what constitutes a "crazy" or "aggressive" look? How could a "hostile" appearance be judged more objectively?

Compare Darren Wilson's description of Michael Brown with some of the witness testimony describing Darren Wilson (beginning on page 26). Witness 148 describes Darren Wilson as "possessed" and like "he wasn't human" - similarly dehumanizing language. 

The grand jury reviewed the case of the shooting of Michael Brown and decided against prosecuting Darren Wilson. The grant jury comprised three Black members and nine white members, roughly the demographics of the St. Louis, MO, metropolitan area, of which Ferguson is a part. 

  • How might Darren Wilson's description of his victim have affected the grand jury's perception of what took place?