On August 3, 2023, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Leon Liggins’ drug conviction because the federal district judge who presided over his trial had stated in open court that Liggins “looks like a criminal to me.” The judge later assured the defendant: “Just because I got mad does not mean I’m biased. I’m not, trust me.”

We trust that the judge, like most people, is not explicitly biased. He most likely harbors no conscious views that are racially discriminatory. We also are concerned that the judge, like most people, displayed implicit bias, which can be just as poisonous.

As our video (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias ) on the subject indicates, implicit bias exists when we unconsciously hold attitudes towards others or associate stereotypes with them.” We may well be explicitly unbiased, but implicitly biased at the same time.

As the video also indicates, implicit bias is a very controversial topic. Many scholars dispute its existence, or at least claim that it is not a significant influence on most people’s day-to-day decision-making. Research in the field continues and may someday settle the debate. It does appear that some of the strongest evidence supporting the existence and significance of implicit bias is that exploring what is often called the “Black-Crime Implicit Bias”—the link in most Americans’ subconscious between crime and Black people, especially young Black men. The same bias that appears to have popped up in the Liggins case.

Many academic studies seem to indicate the existence of such a bias. For example:

  • When subjects were subliminally prompted to think about crime, they then focused more on Black male faces they were shown than on White male faces. And other subjects, subliminally prompted to think about Black men, then focused on photos of crime-related objects rather than neutral objects (gun versus cell phone). In other words, prompted to think about Black men, we tend to think about crime. Prompted to think about crime, we tend to think about Black men.
  • When shown pictures of the faces of young Black men and young White men, White subjects felt more threatened by the Black men than the White men.
  • When shown pictures of Black men and White men of the same size, subjects consistently judged the Black men to be taller, heavier, stronger, and more capable of doing harm. They therefore concluded that police use of force against these Black men was more justified.
  • When viewing a video of one person shoving another under ambiguous circumstances, if a Black person was shoving a White person, 75% of subjects judged the action as “violent,” and only 6% concluded that the Black person was “playing around.” But if a White person was shoving a Black person, only 17% judged the action as “violent” and 42% concluded that the white person was “playing around.”
  • When primed to think of race and then asked to identify weapons in a video game-type setting, subjects identified guns faster when primed with Black faces compared with White faces and also misidentified tools as guns more often.
  • A meta-study of 42 experiments on the “shooter bias” found that relative to White targets (in a video-game setting), subjects were quicker to shoot armed Black targets, slower to decide not to shoot unarmed Black targets, and more likely to have a liberal shooting threshold for Black targets.

The actors in our criminal justice system are people, just like the subjects in the studies mentioned above. And there are many studies involving such actors that indicate that they, too, are subject to implicit bias. To speak of just one study per category:

  • Police officers. Of nearly a thousand fatal police shootings in 2015, an analysis found that Black civilians were more than twice as likely as White civilians to have been unarmed when killed, civilians from minority groups were significantly more likely than Whites to have not been attacking the officers or other civilians when shot, and Black suspects totally compliant with police orders were 21.3% more likely to be subjected to force than White suspects.
  • One study found that federal prosecutors were 1.75 times more likely to bring charges carrying “mandatory minimum” sentences for Black defendants versus White defendants, a major contributing factor to sentencing disparities between the races.
  • Defense Counsel. Defense attorneys are more likely to recommend a plea deal that involves incarceration to a Black client than to a similarly situated White client.
  • Parole Boards. One study found Black candidates less likely to receive parole grants than White prisoners, even controlling for rehabilitative efforts.
  • Probation Officers. A study published in 2023 found that implicit Bias against Black probationers grew as more supervision was done online due to COVID-19; with less personal knowledge about individual probationers, reliance on stereotypes led to more biased decisions.
  • In one study, White jury-eligible subjects presented with a factual scenario said that they would convict a Black defendant who hit a White victim 90% of the time. A similar pool of subjects shown the same scenario, except that a White defendant hit a Black victim, convicted only 70% of the time.

This blog post was prompted by an apparent situation of implicit bias involving judges, and there have been studies relevant to the judicial bias manifested in the Leon Liggins case:

  • A survey of 133 judges found that they were just as subject to implicit bias as lay people.
  • Another study found that 80 percent of white judges more strongly associated Black faces with negative words, and White faces with positive words.
  • In one study, when judges with high levels of pro-white bias were primed with words that called to mind Black defendants, the judges gave harsher sentences to theoretical defendants.
  • A 2018 study found that Miami and Philadelphia bail judges were racially biased against Black defendants and that this bias was implicit rather than conscious, explicit bias.
  • In federal cases, downward departures from sentencing guidelines are much more common for White defendants than for Black defendants—even for identical crimes.

Unfortunately, even appearances can trigger implicit bias, as appears to have happened in Leon Liggins’ case:

  • One study found that when White people perceive that they are threatened by a person of color, they:
    • describe that person as darker than if they did not feel threatened; and
    • are more likely to describe a mixed-race face as “Black.”
  • Studies indicate that the darker a Black person’s skin is or the more “Afrocentric” their features:
    • The more likely they will be stopped and arrested by the police
    • The longer their prison sentence and time actually served
    • The more likely they are to receive a death sentence in a murder case

Thus–although (a) the very existence of implicit bias is controversial, (b) some studies academics have performed produce no evidence of implicit bias, and (c) no scientist believes that it is such a strong and pervasive force that it enables us to predict how a specific person will act in a specific future situation—it does seem that there is enough evidence of Black-Crime Implicit Bias that we should all guard against this potentially morally corrosive influence. This is especially true for judges and other actors in the criminal justice system, because as Sidanius and colleagues recently pointed out:

All else being equal, compared to European Americans, African Americans and Latinos are significantly more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police, once stopped are more likely to be detained, once detained more likely to be arrested and charged with an offense, once charged are more likely to be indicted and subject to trial, once tried are more likely to be convicted, once convicted are less likely to be granted probation and less likely to be granted parole. They are thus more likely to serve more time in prison than equally situated European Americans.

This reality of our criminal justice system undoubtedly reflects some explicit racial bias (the same day that the Sixth Circuit reversed Leon Liggins’ conviction, the newspapers reported that six White Mississippi ex-police officers had pled guilty to torturing two black men), some systemic racial bias, but also, quite likely, liberal doses of Black-Crime implicit bias.



David Arnold et al., “Racial Bias in Bail Decisions,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 133(4): 1885-1932 (2018).

Chang Che, “Conviction Reversed over Judge’s Remark that Black Man ‘Looks Like a Criminal,’” New York Times, Aug. 4, 2023.

Bernice Donald, et al., “Getting Explicit about Implicit Bias, 104 Judicature 104(3): 75-80 (2020).

Birt L. Duncan, B. L., “Differential social perception and attribution of intergroup violence: Testing the lower limits of stereotyping of Blacks,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(4): 590–598 (1976).

Vanessa Edkins, “Defense Attorney Plea Recommendations and Client Race: Does Zealous Representation Apply Equally to All?,” Law & Human Behavior 35: 413-425 (2011).

Bertram Gawronski et al., “How should we think about implicit measures and their empirical ‘anomalies’”? WIREs: Cognitive Science 13(3): e1590 (2022).

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Amy Krosch & David Amodio, “Economic Scarcity Alters the Perception of Race,” PNAS 111: 9079-9084 (2014)

Niha Masih, “White Mississippi Ex-officers Plead Guilty to Torturing Two Black Men,” Washington Post, Aug. 4, 2023.

Gregory Mitchell, “An Implicit Bias Primer,” Virginia Journal of Society, Policy & Law 25: 27-55 (2018).

David B. Mustard, “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence from the U.S. Federal Courts,” Journal of Law & Economics 44: 285 (2001).

Justin Nix et al., “A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015: Further Evidence of Implicit Bias,” Criminology & Public Policy 16(1): 309-340 (2017)

  1. Keith Payne, “Prejudice and Perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon,” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 81: 181-192 (2001).

William Pizzi et al., “Discrimination in Sentencing Based on Afrocentric Features,” 10 Michigan Journal of Race and Law 327 (2003).

Jeffrey Rachlinski et al, “Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?,” Notre Dame Law Review 84(3): 1195-1246 (2009).

  1. Marit Rehavi & Sonja B. Starr, “Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Sentences,” Journal of Political Economy 122(6): 1320-1354 (2014).

Jessica Saunders and Greg Midgette, “A Test for Implicit Bias in Discretionary Criminal Justice Decisions,” Law and Human Behavior 47(1): 217-232 (2023)

Jim Sidanius et al., “The Criminal Justice System as an Instrument of Oppression: A Social Dominance Perspective,” in Bias in the Law (J. Avery & J. Cooper, eds. 2020).

Samuel R. Sommers & Phoebe Ellsworth, “White Juror Bias: An Investigation of Prejudice against Black Defendants in the American Courtroom,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 7(1): 201–229 (2001)..

Sophie Trawalter et al., “Attending to Threat: Race-Based Patterns of Selective Attention,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44: 1322-1327 (2008)

United States v. Liggins, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 20042 (6th Cir. 2023).

Jill Viglione et al., “The Impact of Light Skin on Prison Time for Black Female Offenders,” Social Science Journal 48:250-258 (2011)

Karletta M. White, “The Salience of Skin Tone: Effects on the Exercise of Police Enforcement Authority,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38: 993-1010 (2015)

John Paul Wilson et al., “NO Rule, Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113: 59-80 (2017).

Kathryne M. Young & Jessica Pearlman, “Racial Disparities in Lifer Parole Outcomes: The Hidden Role of Professional Evaluations,” Law & Social Inquiry 78(3): 783-820 (2022)

RElated Videos:

Implicit Bias:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias.