This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
One of the most difficult topics as far as coding that has come up during the course of our project is one that is fundamental to the question we are attempting to answer: What does it mean for a person to be “othered”?
The Prosecution Project is a project whose foundational goal is to compile prosecutions of acts of terrorism, political violence and
extremism from all ideological backgrounds to compare how different people/groups are treated in the United States justice system. An notable pattern prior to the commencement of our research was that white, American-born, Christians are not frequently charged with “terrorism. ” We sought not only to highlight this trend, but to look at the details of sentencing and the patterns that may exist dependent on a perpetrators ideology, tactic, target, severity of attack, and demographic details of the person themselves.
Initially, we were planning to look at some of the demographic differences
by coding for ethnicity, and using that as our variable of interest (tPP does code for a defendant’s age, sex, ethnicity, religion, veteran status, citizenship, as well as external factors such as ideology, group affiliation, previous arrests). What we soon realized is that ethnicity is exceedingly nuanced and almost impossible to determine through secondary literature, court documents, and/or photographs. We wondered if instead religion would better capture the differences we were interested in, but soon decided that it didn’t provide us with as much information about the perpetrators as we though it would.
Instead, we had the idea to create a variable that took into account all
of the variables we coded for that contain traits usually used to define a
person who is understood as a “true American”: ethnicity, religion, and citizenship. Essentially, we decided that anyone who did not fit the cookie-cutter image of a white, American-born Christian has the potential to be
considered “other” in the eyes of not only society, but the legal system,
as a jury in a court of law is meant to be reflective and representative
of the society.
The team has had a series of pretty intense discussions about the ethics of this method for determining what we refer to as “othered status.” One concern raised was that a white, Christian-born, American-born man does not truly experience what it is to be othered in society, even if he, for example,
converts to Islam. He still maintains his white American-born identity. To
allow the team to work with an example that this situation may apply to,
we pulled up Christopher Cornell’s case in our database.
Chris Cornell was an American-born white man who converted to Islam and
insisted to be called by his Muslim name, even though all news articles
and legal proceedings continued with his given name. We applied the
question: would your average Joe look at this man and say “yep, that’s an
American.” The answer, almost unanimously, was no.
As problematic as it is, the fact that Cornell grew out his beard and
presented himself as Muslim is probably enough in the United States for
the average person to not consider him a thoroughbred American boy. It is through this understanding of American society that we determined our criteria that must be met to code the “othered” variable as “yes.” From our codebook:
‘Other Status’ = Using the decision tree below mark the cell as either:
- OTHERED: The defendant is marked as othered if they meet any of the following criteria
- Does the defendant have a name not readily understood as European?
- Is the defendant Muslim or a Muslim convert?
- Is the defendant an immigrant from a non-Western/European country?
- Is the defendant non-white racially as an ‘average person’ would read them (i.e. not passing as white)?
- The defendant is marked as white, non-foreign born, Judeo-Christian and a non-jihadist (i.e. can pass as a white, American-born, Christian/Jew)
The fundamental question is: Would your average, mid- to low-educated person in the United States look at this person and see them as an “American”? Using this question, we have decided, most accurately determines whether a person has been othered in a way that has the potential to affect their treatment in the United States Criminal Justice System.
Athena Chapekis is a senior sociology major at Miami University and senior team member and data analyst at the Prosecution Project