Does appearance matter?: the effect of skin tones on trustworthy and innocent appearances

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University of Alabama Libraries

Decades of research show that among first time offenders Blacks receive a harsher punishment in general than Whites, even after controlling for legally relevant and non-relevant factors. Sentencing disparities between Blacks and Whites contain the presence of colorism. Color is an important component of individual appearance and could send attitudes about one’s demeanor, values, remorse, honesty, and even guilt (Burch, 2015). The current research aims to examine the relationship between the skin tone of capital case inmates and perceived levels of trustworthiness and innocent appearances. Photographs of convicted capital case inmates were shown to undergraduate, entry-level criminal justice students to determine whether the skin tones of capital case inmates influence their views of trustworthiness and innocent appearances. These views were obtained by rating the photographs of capital inmates on two scales measuring levels of trustworthiness and innocence. An analysis of variance was conducted to compare mean ratings of trustworthiness and innocence for each skin tone category. The results revealed a significant relationship between skin tone and perceived levels of trustworthiness. Specifically, student raters rated a light skin photograph higher on trustworthiness when a light skin photograph preceded a dark skin photograph. A discussion of these results, policy implications, and limitations are reviewed. Keywords: colorism, appearance, skin tone, trustworthiness, innocence

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