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Big Black Man Syndrome: The Rodney King Trial and the Use of Racial Stereotypes in the Courtroom

NCJ Number
174658
Journal
Fordham Urban Law Journal Volume: 20 Issue: 3 Dated: Spring 1993 Pages: 571-578
Author(s)
L Vogelman
Date Published
1993
Length
8 pages
Annotation
This essay examines ethnic and racial stereotypes and how they play out in the courtroom, based on an analysis of the Rodney King trial.
Abstract
By the police officers that beat him and the defense attorneys that defended them, Rodney King was portrayed as the prototypical "Big Black Man." The image of Rodney King constructed for the jurors was larger than life, with superhuman strength. It was in this context that jurors, while watching the video of King being brutally beaten, described him as being "in control." He had to be stopped. Afterall, as the map introduced by the defense clearly showed, his "destination" was Simi Valley. Having recognized the existence of the "Big Black Man Syndrome" as a factor in the King case, two issues present themselves. First, what are the ethical and moral implications of allowing defense counsel to play upon the racial fears they evidently recognized? Second, if such conduct can be unethical, did the defense attorneys in the Rodney King case cross those ethical lines? The author concludes that the blatant exploitation of racism, homophobia, or ethnic prejudices by a defense lawyer is unethical; however, he does not believe that the defense attorneys in the King case stepped over this ethical line. The King jury decided as it did because the majority of white Americans, deep in their psyches, want the police to act just the way the police did in the Rodney King videotape. Had the Simi Valley jury met the real Rodney King, however, they may not have feared him. Without that fear coloring every frame, that videotape might have taken on a different meaning for the jury. 20 footnotes