Vol. 30 No. 2 (February 2020) pp. 30-33

BLACK AND BLUE: HOW AFRICAN AMERICANS JUDGE THE U.S. LEGAL SYSTEM, by James L. Gibson and Michael J. Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 220pp. Cloth $99.95. ISBN: 9780190865214. 224pp. Paper $29.95. ISBN: 9780190865221.

Reviewed by Eric N. Waltenburg, Department of Political Science, Purdue University. Email:

James L. Gibson and his various coauthors have contributed mightily to political science’s understanding of the concept of legal legitimacy. And in BLACK AND BLUE, Gibson and Michael J. Nelson add to this already considerable body of research by systematically analyzing the attitudes of black Americans toward the U.S. legal system. A key empirical assumption they make and confirm is that black Americans are not monolithic; they differ in their personal and vicarious experiences with legal authorities and in their group attachments and consciousness. Importantly, these intra-racial differences affect the structure of black attitudes toward the justice system. Grounding their analysis in positivity theory, Gibson and Nelson find that the symbols of legal authority have different effects depending upon experiences and group identities. For some black Americans, judicial symbols evoke positive, legitimacy-enhancing attitudes, which protect the Court’s legitimacy from disappointing decisions and militate for the acceptance or at least toleration of unpopular rulings. Yet for many blacks, the symbols of judicial authority seem to be associated more with social control and repression. For these black Americans, exposure to symbols of judicial authority depress legal legitimacy, and this leads to perhaps the most important theoretical take-away from their analysis: positivity theory is in need of some modification. Contrary to the conventional “to know the courts is to love them” mantra, symbols of judicial authority do not have a uniformly positive effect. Exposure to the symbols stimulates preexisting attitudes and associations. While for some these associations are generally positive, for others the symbols may be linked to more negative perceptions of social control and repression (p. 170f).

Gibson and Nelson’s objective in BLACK AND BLUE is much broader than a test of positivity theory upon a representative sample of black Americans. As they put it, “Our overarching purpose in this book is to describe and analyze the ways that black Americans relate to law and legal institutions” (p. 5). And to that [*31] end, they present five empirical chapters that explore black attitudes toward different aspects of the U.S. legal system. They begin with an analysis that they admit is a bit one-off since it concerns inter-racial differences in diffuse support for the Supreme Court (“Diffuse support” or institutional legitimacy is the enduring belief among the public that an institution has the “authoritative mandate to make policies" (Clawson and Waltenburg 2009, 5; see also Easton 1965, 273; Caldeira and Gibson 1992, 637)). Using data from the nationally representative Freedom and Tolerance Surveys, they show that black (and Hispanic) levels of diffuse support for the Court are significantly lower than white levels of diffuse support. A multivariate analysis of the predictors of diffuse support suggests this is due to a much weaker relationship between diffuse support for the Court and democratic values among blacks than whites.

Given the importance of group identities and experiences to their analysis, Gibson and Nelson then turn to a systematic exploration of those concepts. Here they draw on their survey of a nationally representative sample of black Americans, which contains data on blacks’ “racial identities, … experiences with law enforcement, and … support for the legal system” (p. 51f). (This is the dataset they use for the remainder of their empirical analyses.) They find that a nontrivial proportion of black Americans have had recent experiences with legal authorities that they perceive as unfair and that blacks are not uniform in the degree to which they identify themselves as black or think of their fate as closely connected to the fate of other black Americans. Finally, Gibson and Nelson demonstrate that personal and vicarious experiences, group attachment and consciousness are each distinct concepts.

Turning to whether perceptions of fairness regarding the justice system affect Supreme Court legitimacy, they find no direct effect. However, they show that group identities and group consciousness have powerful conditioning effects on the relationship between perceptions of system fairness and the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. For blacks with high levels of group consciousness, there is a strong link between perceptions of fairness of the justice system and Supreme Court legitimacy. To put it concretely, black Americans with a strong sense of linked fate are more apt to see a close association between their perceptions of system fairness and Court legitimacy. Meanwhile, for blacks with low group attachments, there is also a positive relationship between system fairness and Supreme Court legitimacy, but this effect disappears among blacks with high levels of group attachment. [*32]

The two remaining empirical chapters report the results of an experiment that is embedded in the survey. The experiment is designed to test the effect of exposure to symbols of judicial authority on acceptance of a disagreeable decision and any change in institutional support for the Court that is a response to that decision. For both dependent variables – acquiescence and change in diffuse support – Gibson and Nelson find that identities moderate the effect of judicial symbols. For some blacks, the symbols activate positive attitudes toward the legal system and thus contribute to their acceptance of a disappointing decision and the degree to which they perceive the Court as institutionally credible. For other blacks, however, the opposite process is at work. Symbols activate preexisting negative orientations of social control, and thus exposure to them reduces their acceptance of a disappointing decision and works to erode their level of diffuse support for the Court.

To explain these positive and negative effects, Gibson and Nelson turn to social identity theory. They suggest that variation in the degree to which individuals identify with blacks as a group affects how they perceive a Court ruling. For blacks who have strong group attachments, exposure to judicial symbols will have little effect because group interests are the primary force affecting attitudes toward the Court and its outputs. For blacks with weak group attachments, however, symbols matter, and these symbols evoke orientations of social control, illegitimacy, and repression. As a result, some black Americans will oppose the disappointing decision and be less willing to view the Supreme Court as a legitimate institution. The most important conclusion drawn from these chapters is that group attachments have a very powerful role structuring black Americans’ attitudes toward the legal system.

BLACK AND BLUE is an important and impressive study, which is sure to become a part of the canon on legal legitimacy. It is the most comprehensive research work on black Americans’ attitudes toward the legal system in the literature. It is written in a clear and engaging style, and it is brimming with significant findings: the need for modification of positivity theory; the moderating effects of group attachments and group consciousness; that blacks vary and these differences have consequences for their relations with and views of the legal system; that a striking proportion of black Americans report recent negative experiences with legal authorities, but perceptions of the unfairness of the legal system have not directly affected diffuse support for the Supreme Court; that for some blacks, exposure to the Court has deleterious effects [*33] on their diffuse support for it; and the size of the difference between blacks and whites’ levels of diffuse support for the Court.

Gibson and Nelson are meticulous scholars. Their review of the relevant literature covers the waterfront. Their research design, data, and analyses are entirely appropriate for the questions they pose, and they make sure not to push their conclusions beyond their empirical results. Moreover, they recognize and note when their findings are not consistent with a particular aspect of legitimacy theory.

To be sure, there are some points left underdeveloped. For example, Gibson and Nelson note their analysis does not fully address the psychological mechanisms that underlie the effect of exposure to judicial symbols and the various conditioning effects they consider (p. 172). One of their most important findings is that exposure to the Court and its symbols reduces its institutional credibility for some blacks. One wonders whether any of this effect might be the result of exposure to the black media and how the Court is portrayed in it, a topic left uncovered in the book. And finally, has the much lower diffuse support black Americans extend to the Court reached a tipping point? However, these are not so much criticisms of Gibson and Nelson’s analysis as they are fecund questions for future research. Works that generate lines of inquiry are important fuel for the research process. BLACK AND BLUE is certainly one of those works.


Caldeira, Gregory A. and James L. Gibson. 1992. “The Etiology of Public Support for the Supreme Court.” AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE. 36(3) 635-64.

Clawson, Rosalee A. and Eric N. Waltenburg. 2009. LEGACY AND LEGITIMACY: BLACK AMERICANS AND THE SUPREME COURT. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Easton, David. 1965. A SYSTEMS ANALYSIS OF POLITICAL LIFE. New York: Wiley. 

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Eric N. Waltenburg.