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Race Matters When It Comes to Identifying Criminals

Smart victims of crimes know to pay attention to details during the act to help catch the crook later. Problems with this strategy arise from this phenomenon — people have problems with cross-racial identification. Since 1991, 218 people have been found innocent through DNA testing — 75 percent of those wrongful convictions came from mistaken eyewitnesses, and half of those involved a person of one race misidentifying a person of another.

One such story happened to a victim of rape. Though she'd had a good close look at the perpetrator, when it came to the lineup, she fingered the wrong African-American. To see her story,

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She says, "Between the composite sketch and the photo identification, I had messed it up. By the time I got to the physical lineup, Ron Cotton had become my attacker and that was that." Now the victim and the innocent man she identified leading to his conviction are writing a book together.

The co-founder of the Innocence Project, a legal group that advocates for genetic testing leading to the release of innocent inmates says, "The majority race is not as good at identifying minorities as it is its own race. This is hard-wired in some way that we don't completely understand." The details of five such cases, where African-American suspects were convicted after being misidentified by white victims where DNA ultimately cleared them illustrates this phenomenon.

Where does it come from? Is it possible for one race to have difficulty identifying someone from another? Why?

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lilkimbo lilkimbo 7 years
A Hispanic girl and several African American girls at my work confuse my roommate with me (we both work there) all of the time, so I don't think this is something that is exclusive to Caucasians in the least. We don't even look that much alike!
UnDave35 UnDave35 7 years
Related just because you're both black?!?! That's really idiotic.
PeachyKeen19 PeachyKeen19 7 years
I remember when I was in graduate school, this girl who was not African American kept mistaking me for another African American girl in our class. I guess it wouldn't have bothered me so much if the girl that she confused me with often wasn't 4 shades darker than me, at least 30 pounds heavier than me, and her hair was pretty much cut like a dude's. Anyway. Lol, and have you ever had anyone think you're related to someone just because you're both Black? That happens a lot!!
PeachyKeen19 PeachyKeen19 7 years
I remember when I was in graduate school, this girl who was not African American kept mistaking me for another African American girl in our class. I guess it wouldn't have bothered me so much if the girl that she confused me with often wasn't 4 shades darker than me, at least 30 pounds heavier than me, and her hair was pretty much cut like a dude's. Anyway.Lol, and have you ever had anyone think you're related to someone just because you're both Black? That happens a lot!!
PeachyKeen19 PeachyKeen19 7 years
lilkim i find it so random cos maybe i've just never had that problem. white , asian, black everybody just looks so different. It's actually a real big pet peeve of mine. Me too, my friends and I have talked about this. If you're Cambodian someone else will insist that your Chinese, when your Hispanic people think that it's all one country and also refuse to recognize that ppl don't want to be lumped together in the same group. Whether we look "alike" or not. It's a pet peeve for me too.
PeachyKeen19 PeachyKeen19 7 years
lilkim i find it so random cos maybe i've just never had that problem. white , asian, black everybody just looks so different. It's actually a real big pet peeve of mine.Me too, my friends and I have talked about this. If you're Cambodian someone else will insist that your Chinese, when your Hispanic people think that it's all one country and also refuse to recognize that ppl don't want to be lumped together in the same group. Whether we look "alike" or not. It's a pet peeve for me too.
PeachyKeen19 PeachyKeen19 7 years
It's pretty darn funny that mostly north americans seem to have the biggest problem with saying people of similar ethnic backgrounds all look the same. Chinese people don't look alike at alll, it may be they share the same eye structure but that's it and as for black people we come in so many diferent shades that it's only a moron or a truly ignorant person that can say we look alike. Oh my goodness, exactly!!
PeachyKeen19 PeachyKeen19 7 years
It's pretty darn funny that mostly north americans seem to have the biggest problem with saying people of similar ethnic backgrounds all look the same. Chinese people don't look alike at alll, it may be they share the same eye structure but that's it and as for black people we come in so many diferent shades that it's only a moron or a truly ignorant person that can say we look alike.Oh my goodness, exactly!!
Kelliegrl Kelliegrl 7 years
I remember when I was in graduate school, this girl who was not African American kept mistaking me for another African American girl in our class. I guess it wouldn't have bothered me so much if the girl that she confused me with often wasn't 4 shades darker than me, at least 30 pounds heavier than me, and her hair was pretty much cut like a dude's. Anyway.
stephley stephley 7 years
I'm not sure I believe it's hard wired, except in that we can only handle so much information. I think in the case of eyewitnesses emotional reactions are key to what we think we know and remember.
True-Song True-Song 7 years
>it's only a moron or a truly ignorant person that can say we look alike. Isn't this post saying that it's hard wired in our brains? I was glad to read that, because it is harder for me to tell black people from other black people or asians from other asians sometimes, and I always feel so guilty about that. But it's just what you're used to. I had a teacher who taught for a while at a school with mostly asian students, and he said after a while he could tell (for the most part) Koreans from Chinese from Vietnamese, etc, and when he switched to a school with most white students, he suddenly had a hard time telling one blonde girl from the next.
javsmav javsmav 7 years
"it's only a moron or a truly ignorant person that can say we look alike."nyaradzom, I think it definitely can be a sign of ignorance--like not wanting to look past someone's race or trying to see someone as a unique individual. And certainly any absolute statement like "they all look alike" is ignorant, but I don't think a comparison between two people of the same race is necessarily racist or ignorant. There are people that look like each other in every race--which leads to lilkimbo's statement. "a significant number of them involved someone misidentifying someone of his or her own race."Like what Jude says--I get that a lot with redhead actresses. People think I look like a actresses with red hair that look nothing like me or I remind them of their redhead friend just because I have red hair, too. These are people of my own race, but they just can't get past the red hair. I just roll my eyes. But I'm just as guilty--like with white Southern frat boys. I have a hard time telling them apart with their same floppy hair cut and polo shirts. I hope I'm not a victim of a crime for many reasons, but one being that I would hate to be responsible for trying to identify the person--no matter what race they were I would be afraid of making a mistake. I'm not very observant.
javsmav javsmav 7 years
"it's only a moron or a truly ignorant person that can say we look alike." nyaradzom, I think it definitely can be a sign of ignorance--like not wanting to look past someone's race or trying to see someone as a unique individual. And certainly any absolute statement like "they all look alike" is ignorant, but I don't think a comparison between two people of the same race is necessarily racist or ignorant. There are people that look like each other in every race--which leads to lilkimbo's statement. "a significant number of them involved someone misidentifying someone of his or her own race." Like what Jude says--I get that a lot with redhead actresses. People think I look like a actresses with red hair that look nothing like me or I remind them of their redhead friend just because I have red hair, too. These are people of my own race, but they just can't get past the red hair. I just roll my eyes. But I'm just as guilty--like with white Southern frat boys. I have a hard time telling them apart with their same floppy hair cut and polo shirts. I hope I'm not a victim of a crime for many reasons, but one being that I would hate to be responsible for trying to identify the person--no matter what race they were I would be afraid of making a mistake. I'm not very observant.
lilkimbo lilkimbo 7 years
I also think it's interesting that only half of the false eye witness statements involved someone of one race wrongly identifying someone of another, which means that a significant number of them involved someone misidentifying someone of his or her own race. I think that the fact that people panic when witnessing crimes (or being the victims of crimes) has a lot to do with this, as well.Anyway, time to get back to work. That will probably be my contribution for the week!
lilkimbo lilkimbo 7 years
I also think it's interesting that only half of the false eye witness statements involved someone of one race wrongly identifying someone of another, which means that a significant number of them involved someone misidentifying someone of his or her own race. I think that the fact that people panic when witnessing crimes (or being the victims of crimes) has a lot to do with this, as well. Anyway, time to get back to work. That will probably be my contribution for the week!
lilkimbo lilkimbo 7 years
I've never really had that problem, either, I just wanted to point out that it's not just that Anglo-Americans have this problem, people of other races do, as well.
nyaradzom2001 nyaradzom2001 7 years
lilkim i find it so random cos maybe i've just never had that problem. white , asian, black everybody just looks so different. It's actually a real big pet peeve of mine.
lilkimbo lilkimbo 7 years
Nya, I think it's important to remember that it goes both ways, as javsmav pointed out.
nyaradzom2001 nyaradzom2001 7 years
It's pretty darn funny that mostly north americans seem to have the biggest problem with saying people of similar ethnic backgrounds all look the same. Chinese people don't look alike at alll, it may be they share the same eye structure but that's it and as for black people we come in so many diferent shades that it's only a moron or a truly ignorant person that can say we look alike.
em1282 em1282 7 years
Considering the fact that people have guessed my race as being everything from Japanese to Colombian, yup, it's difficult, but why, that's tough. I think maybe it's just an instinctual thing--people just want to categorize and classify things right away (that's just how we're wired most of the time) and because of that no one really takes extra time to notice differences.
javsmav javsmav 7 years
I think it's just a matter of being around other races and because we're still a fairly segregated society, then yes, we have trouble identifying people of different races. I taught English at a public school in China and had 12 classes of 60 students. I saw each class once a week and at least once a week for the first few months I would walk into a classroom and have a freak-out moment over thinking I was in the wrong class b/c I could have sworn I taught that class the previous day. Of course, it didn't help that they all wore the same uniform. Eventually I learned to pick up on features the way that I assume they do naturally. Of course, they could not tell the American teachers apart--even with different hair color. Red, blonde, brunette, they were all the same color ("gold"). It can be funny (or annoying) if it happens on the street, but when someone's freedom is at stake, it's really scary.
javsmav javsmav 7 years
I think it's just a matter of being around other races and because we're still a fairly segregated society, then yes, we have trouble identifying people of different races. I taught English at a public school in China and had 12 classes of 60 students. I saw each class once a week and at least once a week for the first few months I would walk into a classroom and have a freak-out moment over thinking I was in the wrong class b/c I could have sworn I taught that class the previous day. Of course, it didn't help that they all wore the same uniform. Eventually I learned to pick up on features the way that I assume they do naturally. Of course, they could not tell the American teachers apart--even with different hair color. Red, blonde, brunette, they were all the same color ("gold"). It can be funny (or annoying) if it happens on the street, but when someone's freedom is at stake, it's really scary.
lovelie lovelie 7 years
I wonder if his conviction was based solely on her eyewitness testimony...or if there was any other evidence implicating him. Generally speaking, eyewitness testimony is never enough to even sustain an indictment, hardly a conviction. I actually worked for the Innocence Project last semester and in theory it is a great program, in reality however, it is quite defeating...most of our candidates yielded no additional appeals and a good % of them were guilty as charged.
bellaressa bellaressa 7 years
I thought they all look alike.
hypnoticmix hypnoticmix 7 years
I honestly have no idea why. I also can't say how I would fair under circumstances of severe duress where my life is on the line. Judging by my ability to stay calm in stressful situations in general though I'd say I'd fair better than most. When I examine some ones features it's more about lines and contours than color for me.
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