Unconscious Racism and the Dehumanization of Black Youth

A young black boy in a park looks glumGathering 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.


  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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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  • Francis


    December 11th, 2014 at 2:02 PM

    I feel so torn at times when I see these stories for I know how I would want to react but then I don’t know how I really would react if I were in that very same situation. I don’t think that any of us are okay with thinking that we are just racist people but I think that when the truth comes out we see that most of us harbor far more racist tendencies than what we would like to imagine.

  • Randall R

    Randall R

    December 11th, 2014 at 2:29 PM

    Having grown up as a child during this nation’s Civil Rights movement, and observing (and experiencing) greater access to privilege and participation in mainstream American culture over time, it saddens me to see such a dramatic setback in race relations and dialogue. So there must be massive denial and compartmentalization building in a day where we can celebrate our first African American president at a macro level, yet growing disparity and fear at the micro level. We can remain segregated in our thoughts.

  • Leila


    December 12th, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    Randall R I do agree with you but at the same time don’t you think that there has to be something going on that causes people to still think these things? like these are the things that are always shown and talked about, never any of the good things that are happening within the black community as a whole?

  • stacy


    December 14th, 2014 at 5:24 AM

    The people that I am always suspicious of are the ones who will start every sentence with the words “I’m not racist but…”

  • Cecil


    December 25th, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    I don’t think that most people like to think of themselves as being racist or prejudiced but the truth is that we all have our prejudices, and some of us wear them openly and there are some where they are hidden and deep seated. No matter which you have, it is good to be open about it, acknowledge that you are possibly not the person that you imagine that you are, and take steps toward changing and modifying those beliefs.

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