Our Racist Brains

Allport & Postman, 1947 (added emphasis)

“In over half of the experiments with this picture, the final report indicated that the Negro (instead of the white man) held the razor in his hand, and several times he was reported as ‘brandishing it widely’ or as ‘threatening’ the white man with it.” -Allport & Postman, 1947

The above image is taken from a 1947 study by Allport & Postman regarding the psychology of rumor. In the study, an initial subject is brought into a room where the experimenter describes the image above in great detail. Following participants are brought in and provided with a description of the image from the prior subject. As you might expect, the accuracy of the description deteriorates over time, to the point where inidividuals resort to distortions or outright fabrications, often times producing these distortions along lines that reveal underlying prejudices and expectations.

In the age of smartphone cameras and surveillance videos, one would imagine that these kinds of eyewitness distortions would be less prevalent, or at the very least, able to be verified beyond a reasonable doubt by reference to such recorded media. However, in the wake of the recent spate of shootings of unarmed black men, it is becoming ever clearer that the police forces in America have been guilty of falling prey to fundamental perceptual and cognitive distortions along racial lines. One need look no further than the testimony of office Darren Wilson following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri:

“Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt…” (pg. 212)

“The only way I can describe it, it looked like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” (pg. 225)

These quotes can be seen as variations on the theme Allport & Postman first identified-“assimilations to expectation” that fit an underlying cultural narrative of the dangerous, hulking black male “Other”, not exactly justifying but explaining the subsequent irrational fear response of the otherwise empowered (not to mention armed) white male officer.

While the fear response can cause the type of selective processing that produces errors in judgment, it is only one psychological factor influencing the ultimate decision to use lethal force. Mother Jones has an excellent piece about the science of racism and prejudice that discusses the findings of decades of psychological research into why our brains make such fundamental errors in processing visual stimuli. I won’t paraphrase the entire article here, but much of it bears repeating.

One of the primary research tools that has been used to study implicit racism has been the Implicit Association Test, which tasks subjects with rapidly categorizing faces as “African American” or “European American” while also categorizIng words (like “evil”, “happy”, “awful”, and “peace”) as “good” or “bad”. The typical finding (which has been replicated numerous times with different populations) has been that negative words are more quickly categorized when preceded by a black face. Given that the images are flashed on the screen for fractions of a second, this speaks to some unconscious, implicit processing in the brain; racially biased cultural programming that has hijacked the very wiring of your brain to produce a racist result.

What does this mean for police officers, not to mention the rest of us?

It means you don’t need to be a card-carrying member of the KKK for your brain to automatically react to situations in racially biased ways. After all, our brains have evolved over thousands of years to become very adept at categorizing information rapidly and efficiently. It would not have been efficient for humankind if we had treated every encounter with a sabertooth tiger as novel. Instead, we saw big cats and presumed the danger. Unfortunately, what was useful for survival in the past has now become a vestigial artifact that makes us prone to racist distortions.

Courtesy of Mother Jones

Police officers are in no way, shape, or form immune to these racially biased distortions. In studies utilizing first-person shooter decision tasks (where participants must quickly decide whether to shoot targets holding either guns or harmless, everyday objects) officers are considerably slower not to shoot an unarmed black man than they are for an unarmed white man—and faster to shoot an armed black man than an armed white man.

In order to correct this behavior, police officers (as well as human beings on the whole) need to be made more aware of the prevailing research on the causes and effects of implicit racism, and what one can do to circumvent these cognitive distortions. Indeed, there are training programs designed specifically for officers and their superiors designed expressly for this purpose.

Only when we fully understand and accept our brains’ culpability in the deaths of unarmed black men in America will we finally be able to work towards changing the status quo.

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