Gathering accurate data on police shootings is notoriously difficult, since police departments aren’t required to report shootings to the FBI. According to a 2012 analysis by ProPublica, though, blacks are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites. Across the nation, people of all races have expressed concern about racial disparities in policing and the increasing conflicts between police and the citizens they protect. Law enforcement groups have fired back with assertions that racial disparities don’t necessarily represent racism, while individual officers have argued that their decisions aren’t based on race. It might seem like it’s impossible for police officers to think they’re being fair when they’re actually being racist, but recent social psychology research suggests that racial bias is often subtle.
Dehumanization of Black Children
One 2014 study found that black children are more likely to be perceived as older and more dangerous than their white peers—a fact that might help explain why police thought 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a boy recently shot by police in Cleveland, was 20. Researchers tested 176 police officers for signs of prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people. Police officers completed questionnaires containing statements such as “It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.” They also completed a task during which they paired images of black and white people with images of either large cats or apes. Researchers believe that being more likely to pair black images with apes is a sign of dehumanization.
Researchers evaluated each officer’s test results, then explored the officer’s personnel file. They found that those who scored high on measures of dehumanization of blacks were more likely to use force against a black child. Interestingly, an officer’s self-reported prejudice against blacks played no role in the use of force, suggesting officers might not be aware of their own prejudice.
Perceptions of Blacks as Superhuman and Dangerous
Officer Darren Wilson, the Missouri police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, expressed intense fear of Brown in his grand jury testimony. At one point, he compared Brown to a “demon.” A study recently published in Social Psychology and Personality Science helps to shed light on these claims. That study used an implicit association test, which measures how quickly people process words linked to a group or category. Researchers found that people more quickly processed words such as “wizard” and “magic” when those terms were paired with black people, suggesting that some people have an unconscious bias that causes them to view blacks as superhuman, and therefore especially dangerous.
Adam Waytz, a Northwestern University professor and one of the study’s authors, recently explained in an interview with Seattle’s KPLU 88.5 that people tend to view blacks as more immune to pain. According to Waytz, strong black characters are popular stock characters. This subtle but steady media influence can, over time, cause people to unconsciously believe in the strength and immunity of people with darker skin. Though Waytz’s research does not directly address how this phenomenon affects policing, it does help explain why white police officers might view black people as more dangerous than they actually are.
The Racist Trigger Finger
No matter how well-intentioned, police officers are vulnerable to the same conditioning as everyone else. When decisions of life and death have to be made in a split second, officers may rely on unconscious impulses as much as conscious reasoning. Joshua Correll, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor, has developed a game that measures people’s willingness to shoot others when they believe they are in danger. He has found that people hesitate for shorter periods of time when shooting blacks. This means more blacks than whites are shot, even when circumstances are substantially similar. If you’d like to see how you perform, you can play the game yourself by following this link.
- Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds. (March 6). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx
- Gabrielson, R., Grochowski, R., & Sagara, E. (2014, October 10). Deadly force, in black and white. Retrieved from http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white
- In Darren Wilson’s testimony, familiar themes about black men. (2014, November 26). Retrieved from http://www.kplu.org/post/darren-wilsons-testimony-familiar-themes-about-black-men
- Kristof, N. (2014, August 27). Is everyone a little bit racist? Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/opinion/nicholas-kristof-is-everyone-a-little-bit-racist.html?_r=0
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