Being less than white in the US is not an asset when you’re in court, in more than one sense. It’s well known that black defendants face prejudice in the criminal justice system. There’s in fact a double injustice going on: dark skinned people get a raw deal from juries, and there are more of them facing juries because of racial profiling. But something similar is happening on the other side of the court room:
In this paper, I find that cases decided by black federal lower-court judges are consistently overturned more often than cases authored by similar white judges. I estimate this effect by leveraging the fact that incoming cases to the U.S. courts are randomly assigned to judges, which ensures that black and white judges hear similar sorts of cases. The effect is robust and persists after matching exactly on measures for judicial quality (including quality ratings assigned by the American Bar Association (ABA)), previous professional and judicial experience, and partisanship. Moreover, by looking more closely at the ABA ratings scores awarded to judicial nominees, I demonstrate that this effect is unlikely to be attributable exclusively to differences between black and white judges in terms of quality. This study is the first to explore how higher-court judges evaluate opinions written by judges of color. (source)
If we assume that it’s likely that black judges are more sensitive to the possibility of racial injustices suffered by defendants – and that assumption doesn’t require a huge leap of faith – then we’ll have a vicious feedback loop: if the decisions of black judges are more often overturned, then that will also harm black defendants. Add this to the harm done by prejudiced juries and police officers, and you’ll have a good explanation for incarceration rates by race.