What Can Science Teach Us About Racism and Ferguson?

In the wake of the grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, I have heard a number of people say that this is not about racism. “Consider only the facts,” they say. “People are letting their emotions get the best of them.” “They are going hysterical and calling this racist when it isn’t.”

You can easily peruse the facts of the Brown-Wilson case specifically (the transcript is right here). Removing hot emotions and lived experience, what if we use cool data to look at this case and others?

What if we use humanity’s highest form of fact- and logic-based thinking…..science? Experimentation? Controlled variables in a laboratory setting?

Let’s take a look.

To start, if you’re wondering about my qualifications, I have a degree in social psychology from one of the top 20 schools in the country. For several semesters, I ran lab experiments for a PhD student who is now a psychology professor at another top 20 school nationwide. So I promise, I didn’t just read a few Malcom Gladwell books and call myself an expert.

First off– how the hell do you measure racism in a lab setting, anyways? You can’t just ask research subjects, “Hey, do you hate black people?” Most people will answer no– not just because most people aren’t KKK members, but also because of social desirability. That is, they know they’ll look better if they withhold or underplay racist beliefs that they might have. So scientists developed what’s called the implicit association test (IAT). The IAT primes a subject by first flashing a prime– a word or image displayed for milliseconds, which registers subconsciously but not consciously– then showing another word or image. The subject must categorize that second word or image as instructed by the experimenter. The variable is response time– if she was primed with a first stimulus that she associates with that category, then she selects the category faster. So, let’s say that someone was being shown a smiley face and a frowny face, and asked to click on the smiley face each time it comes up. If the subject is primed with flower on the screen for just an instant before the faces appear, she will click on the smiley face more quickly than if she is primed with insect. (Unless she happens to be an entomology major, I suppose.)

So Drs. Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, and Williams studied this in race. Subjects were shown adjectives such as wonderful, disgusting, and attractive and asked to press a key to indicate if it was good or bad. Before each word, they were subliminally primed with photographs of Caucasian and African American faces. When primed with African American faces, white subjects were quicker to categorize bad adjectives– because they have negative associations with black and brown faces. Moreover, their scores on the implicit association test didn’t correlate precisely with explicit written questionnaires (the Modern Racism Scale).

This indicates that white people who do not identify as disliking African Americans can still harbor negative attitudes towards them. Full text of the study can be found here.

Yes, you say, but there is a difference between negative attitudes and being a police officer who has to quickly assess and act on a threat. Dr. B. Keith Payne wondered if implicit attitudes could affect decisions that police officers make– namely, does that guy have a gun? In the lab, Payne had subjects categorize an image as either a gun or a simple hand tool. Before each image, they were primed with either an African American face or a white face.

 photo weaponbias.png

That’s the image included in the research article, published here. Subjects showed a greater weapon bias when primed with African American faces– that is, they were quicker to pick a gun, and more likely to erroneously mistake a hand tool for a gun.

So, we have established experimental evidence that people’s decisions can be influenced by race without their explicit knowledge, and that these decisions can have to life-or-death consequences. (Payne cites Amadou Diallo, whom police shot to death because they thought he had a gun– in reality, he was pulling out a wallet to show ID.)

Is this justified? African Americans are disproportionately more likely to commit a crime, right? Doesn’t that make it their issue, their fault? Caucasians are just using facts here. African Americans need to shape up and improve themselves.

Does science say that it is merely an issue of character flaw, though? Take a look at some data.

The National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan shows that poverty disproportionately affects Hispanics and African Americans— 26.6% and 27.4% respectively were poor, compared to 12.1% of Asians and 9.9% of Caucasians. We also know that people of low socioeconomic status experience greater levels of stress, as objectively measured by cortisol (one of the fight-or-flight hormones). There is lots of work on cortisol and child poverty, but here is a study in adults by Sheldon Cohen et al.

If you have taken any introductory psych course, you may recall the name Roy Baumeister. He is the rock star of self-regulation, and did some enormously influential experiments that show that willpower is much like a muscle. If self-control is used, eventually that “muscle” gets tired and it becomes hard to control yourself until you can rest. (So, if you have been biting your tongue to keep from lashing out at your cranky boss all day, don’t expect to have an easy time of coming home and forcing yourself to exercise instead of pigging out on chips and salsa on the couch.) In Baumeister’s extensive review of the literature, he says, “When stress or fatigue depletes an individual’s strength, self-regulatory failures become more likely.”

Now let us return to the lab. Dr. C. Nathan DeWall, in conjunction with Baumeister and others, did a clever set of experiments to look at the relation between self-regulation and aggression. Subjects entered the lab, presumably for an experiment on “food preferences and written expression.” The subject and a partner, hidden in another room, first wrote essays. Then the subject either received a donut or a radish for taste testing– until the experimenter burst out that the subject got the wrong food, and to please hold on for a few minutes while she fetched the right food item. That is the experimental vs. control setup. Afterwards, the subject gets his or her essay back, graded by the “partner” (actually, a confederate of the experiment) with negative commentary scribbled all over it (including, bitingly, “this is one of the worst essays I have ever read”). Subjects then had to prepare a taste test for their partner. In a food preference questionnaire, the partner (falsely, of course) rated a strong dislike of spicy foods. Subjects were advised to give their partners three potato chips and “adequate sauce.” Guess who dumped hot sauce all over their one-alarm, Tabasco-hating partner’s chips? Yes, the participants who resisted eating the donut– the ones who exerted their self-regulation muscles. Their hot sauce alacrity had nothing to do with feelings of anger towards the partner, as post-test questionnaires showed. It was a result of ego depletion (that is, wiping out their self-regulation).

What to conclude from this? Poverty leads to stress and problems with self-regulation, which leads to increased aggression.

People of all races are poor, but African Americans are far more likely to be poor than Caucasians.

Caucasians may say “this was not influenced by race,” but race can influence us in subtle, harmful ways.

During grand jury deliberations, a 12-year-old black boy was shot to death for carrying a BB gun, which a 911 caller repeatedly told dispatchers was probably not real.

A week before, a black father named Akai Gurley was shot and killed by a rookie police officer in the Brooklyn housing project where he lived. Mr. Gurley was taking the stairs, dark without bulb replacements for months, because the elevator was broken. He was unarmed and innocent.

When you don’t know who to believe, believe the science.


4 thoughts on “What Can Science Teach Us About Racism and Ferguson?

  1. This is interesting/very timely. This semester I did a huge paper on the correlation between suspect demeanor and police aggression. Pretty much everything I read on the topic found that a hostile demeanor was a much stronger predictor of police violence than anything else. Now here’s the rub; when cops are surveyed, they’ll often describe African-American suspects as hostile far in disproportion to their representation in the overall population. These studies were interesting because they rarely asked “do you hate Black people?” but they were still able to measure verifiable and consistent racial bias.

  2. Pingback: Being a White Girl Marching for #blacklivesmatter | Chortling Towards Bethlehem

  3. Pingback: Diabetes Blog Week: Favorites and Motivations | Chortling Towards Bethlehem

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