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Black Death: The Rashomon Effect and Our Symbols of Justice

Where is the justice in the US justice system?

Protesters fill New York City streets to demonstrate against police brutality in the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner's murders, on November 28, 2014. (Photo: a katz /

This past summer, my nephew, Charles Goodridge, an unarmed black 53-year-old computer analyst, was shot and killed by an off-duty policeman in Harris County, Texas. Our family believes that Charles was unjustly killed and we are trying to get justice for him and those he left behind. In these situations, healing really begins when there is a sense of justice. Despite our efforts, however, we are doubtful that we will ever get justice. This is my second article inspired by my nephew’s killing, but this article goes beyond Charles’ killing. A police officer or vigilante kills a black person every 28 hours in the United States. Unfortunately, in most cases, even when these killings are videotaped, the police officer is cleared and in some cases rewarded. As one who is left behind and as a psychologist, I ask why this is happening. Where is the justice in our justice system? And so I look for answers to these questions.

The Rashomon Effect

In 1950, Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa made a film titled Rashomon. The movie is about a murder and a rape to which there were four eyewitnesses.

As the story unfolds, each of the four witnesses tells their version of what happened. Each story is compelling and vastly different from the other, but the fact remained that there was a rape and murder. In 1988, ethnographer and anthropologist Karl G. Heider, who was familiar with Kurosawa’s work, coined the term “the Rashomon effect” to describe the subjectivity of perception and recollection to explain why people give different accounts of the same event. Heider was addressing this specifically to his colleagues since this disparity of perception was manifesting within the research they were doing. He found that seeing is not always seeing clearly and that realizing this fact helped his colleagues filter out their misperceptions and gain more accurate data. How does the Rashomon effect help us in our healing process? How does the Rashomon effect affect our ability to adjudicate our justice system?

Lady Justice and the US Constitution: Our Symbols of Justice

Lady Justice
Among the things an anthropologist studies to understand a culture are the customs and symbols said culture reveres. Lady Justice, the blindfolded woman holding in one hand a scale and in the other a double-edged sword, is one of those symbols. Her blindfold and the scales can represent fairness and objectivity. The sword can represent reason and justice. The blindfold can also mean fate or luck. The sword can also mean vengeance. So the symbol of justice that the United States has chosen is a very complex symbol.

Justice can be blind meaning objective or it could be blind to injustices, depending on the Rashomon effect. The sword could represent reason and justice or it could be vengeful, depending on the Rashomon effect. The idea that justice has to do with fate or luck has not been forgotten by history.

The US Constitution
Many say that first impressions are lasting impressions. When our revered national document, the Constitution of the United States, states that a black person is only three-fifths of a person, then the lasting impression of not seeing a black person as a human being has affected and continues to affect our personal and judicial lives.

The Rashomon Effect Obscuring Reality

The Rashomon effect can explain our family’s doubts that we will get justice for Charles. When white people see videos of black men being killed by police, the customs of our society and the racial subjectivity of perception create a reality for them that justifies the police action. White people see this as justice. When blacks see these videos, they see violence being perpetrated on them. Black people see this as injustice. The fate of black people is in the hands of a white justice system that does not see the realities of black folk.

It has been and continues to be our fate that we feel lucky if we get justice from this blind system. White society both ignores and perpetuates the system’s violence, vengeance and race ideology. If you asked a black person how it feels to be black, he or she would have lots to say. Black people always have to think about where their blackness fits in a white society. If you ask a white person how it feels to be white, he or she would be confused by the question. They never have to think about how it feels to be white. So how is it possible for black people to receive justice in such an indifferent culture?

Acknowledgement Is the First Step to Justice

The Rashomon effect does not mean that everyone’s point of view is correct. There are facts, and the fact that black lives are being taken with little or no consequence is not up for debate. It is a fact. If we are to move forward toward justice and healing, our institutions and those who run them must acknowledge the Rashomon effect. There must be meaningful changes based around this new understanding. People who have the power of life and death must be educated to see that their indifference is real and has had and will continue to have deadly consequences if they don’t change.

I truly believe that people can change and most people want to do the right thing. I also know that change is difficult and scary, especially when the cultural ways of seeing and not seeing are deeply imbedded. The awareness of the Rashomon effect gives us a tool that will help us move forward. To my white brothers and sisters, if you believe that white lives matter, you must also believe that black, brown and yellow lives matter equally. Resistance to acknowledge this and resistance to go forward with this knowledge will only lead to the downfall of this nation – and in the end, no one will have justice or peace.

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