We humans are naturally inclined to believe that things are as they appear to be. “If it walks like a duck…,” and all that. We all knew, even before we really could, that O.J. did it (unless we were among the many African Americans who alternatively knew that the system was unfailingly biased against African Americans, even very wealthy and famous ones, and that O.J. was therefore being railroaded).  And lots of people similarly knew that Tim Masters did it, until some dedicated lawyers swimming upstream and for no pay proved that he didn’t, getting him released from prison after 18 years languishing there. Once we know, we filter our perceptions to reinforce our certainty. That’s the nature of prejudice, and it is far more ubiquitous, far more an inherent aspect of our lives, than most of us recognize.

In criminal matters, the first line of defense against error is the police, who, rather than being less inclined to prejudice than lay people, are more inclined. Professional experience breeds cynicism; a system which provides in some ways extravagant protections for the innocent provides too many ways out for the guilty; and the desire to compensate for that system of institutionalized doubt creates little room for doubt among those who know who committed the crime. Certainties are quickly arrived at, and evidence is sought to confirm rather than refute them. The police “put together a case” rather than test their assumptions, and a narrative is constructed that proves guilt, whether or not such guilt corresponds to reality (the fact that it usually does is not at issue, nor in opposition to this thesis, since injustices are not made more just by virtue of being in the minority).

So the police, the first line of defense, are more rather than less inclined than lay people to rely on prejudice, and to reinforce rather than question their own hasty assumptions.

Once a person is identified as guilty by the police, the presumption is really against them, though institutionally in their favor. Jurors see someone who the police arrested and who is on trial for a crime. And if that person is not terribly sympathetic, all the worse for them.

But jurors, I’m told, take their duties very seriously, and don’t convict too precipitously. And the system as a whole really does try to protect the innocent, counterbalancing some of these prejudices. Despite the many ways in which our judicial system is far less inclined to justice than we imagine, it is far more inclined to justice than almost any other sphere of our lives.

We do not enjoy the same degree of due process protections for non-judicial decisions that may dramatically affect our welfare. In many spheres, the process given involves an investigation, determination, and recommendation all done by a single office, often with a very highly pronounced predisposition of its own. If our judicial system allows more prejudice and injustice into it than we commonly imagine, then all other similar activities beyond it, that place the roles of investigation, prosecution, and judgement all in the hands of a single, predisposed agency, are doomed to be outright mockeries of justice, railroading people almost as often as they get it right.

And we enjoy no due process protections whatsoever in the court of public opinion, where the failures of other spheres become embedded in permanent reality, and a far wider universe of informal failures of its own are added to them. Some are quasi-official, such as the person who ends up on a sex offenders registry for urinating in public (something I believe that most men, at least, have done on at least one occasion, usually with as much discretion as possible). Some are simply part of our nature, such as the eccentric being ostracized.

We remain throughout our lives, to a degree we are loathe to recognize, the same essential creatures as the children we once were, mocking the little girl with the hearing aid, or the boy with a bit too much saliva production. There is a cruelty, an intolerance, that permeates what we are, in ways that we disregard or dismiss as trivial, but that have a far greater cumulative effect than we often realize.

But injustice is more deeply rooted still. We are born into different conditions in life, different opportunity structures, different lots. A person born into an abusive and neglectful family, surrounded, perhaps, by violence, poverty, drug use, and gangs that are the only source of mutual support available, does not face the same prospects as one born into an affluent and nurturing home (not to suggest that all impoverished homes are not nurturing, or that all affluent ones are).

One measure of civilization should be the degree to which we mitigate these myriad and prevalent injustices, the degree to which we level the playing field and ensure that all face equality of opportunity, and at least informal and self-imposed protection from prejudices and cruelties in all their forms. Public education is one, insufficient, vehicle for doing so. Cultivating a more widespread attitude of tolerance, mutual support, a belief that we are all members of a society, a desire to assist rather than condemn, would also go a long way to moving us further in the direction of a more just and compassionate society. Such notions have rarely been more embattled in this country, which is why they have rarely been in greater need of more voices more loudly advocating them, and more wills more diligently embracing them.

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