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Content note: this post discusses the role of racial prejudice in gun-related murders of people of color.

Amadou Diallo. Jordan Davis. Trayvon Martin. Renisha McBride. Each of these people was unarmed, nonviolent, and were shot in what their killers claimed was self-defense.  Each was a person of color.  Some people question whether race played a part in their deaths. They point to mental instability on the part of the murderer, the murderer’s prior history of general aggression, or the difficulties that policepeople face when carrying out their duties in dangerous neighborhoods. However, psychological studies of implicit bias in the decision to shoot a human target indicate that race was very likely a factor in these murders.  Moreover, these studies point to a simple and powerful way that ordinary people can prevent such deaths in the future.

In 2002, Correll et al conducted a study[1] in which participants played a video game. In the video game, participants were presented with a highly realistic image of a person standing in a public setting and holding an object. Participants were instructed to press a “shoot” button if the person was armed, and a “don’t shoot” button if the person was unarmed. The skin color of the person in the image was either white or black.

This study’s findings were beyond disturbing.  Participants were faster to judge white people as being unarmed and people of color as being armed. They were more likely to wrongly shoot unarmed people of color and were less likely to correctly shoot armed white people.  Perhaps even more disturbingly, the study showed that the trend of shooting people of color more than white people also occurred among PoC who participated in the study. Based on this finding, researchers hypothesized that it was exposure to stereotypes equating blackness with danger, rather than an individual participant’s dislike of PoC, that caused the higher rates of shooting an unarmed person with dark skin.

In a followup experiment to test this hypothesis,[2] participants were given an article about a violent crime to read prior to beginning this same task.  The criminal in the article was either described as being white or being black. The participants who were given a news article about a violent crime committed by a person of color became more willing to shoot a suspect with dark skin. Participants who read an article about a white criminal were equally likely to shoot a suspect of color as they were to shoot a white suspect, but it was because they increased how often they shot white suspects, not because they shot suspects of color less often.

What is so important and so terrifying about these two studies is the evidence that there is a causal relationship between exposing people to racial stereotypes equating blackness with violence and an increased likelihood of people making quick decisions to shoot people of color. This means that when news networks report disproportionately on crimes committed by people of color, when movies and TV shows and video games have criminals with black skin and heroes with white skin, they are literally putting the lives of people of color at stake.

This means that when someone at your dinner table is going off about crime among people of color, using whatever fake statistics they are pulling out of their butt, you can’t sit quietly and politely wait for them to finish. You can’t sit quietly even if you and everyone else there are wincing in agony and giving each other looks. Because just by listening, you and your guests are being exposed to stereotypes that equate people of color with danger, stereotypes that this research shows will make you more likely to make an instinctive choice to engage in violence against an unarmed person with dark skin. Furthermore, if you sit silently and just wait for the person to stop talking, you are passing up an opportunity to intervene in a shared culture of non-conscious prejudice that is literally killing people.

So if you hear something, say something. Tell that friend at dinner about these studies. Write to your local news station and let them know the consequences of their bias. Write to the writers and directors of entertainment media and tell them that researchers have found a direct link between the stereotypes they promote and the deaths of real people. Create and sign petitions. No matter where or how you choose to do it, don’t stand idly by these racist stereotypes that have real power to shed an innocent person’s blood. Be an active bystander. Speak up.

[1] Correll et al. (2002) The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 83(6), 1314 – 1329. Back
[2] Correll et al. (2007) The influence of stereotypes on decisions to shoot.  European Journal of Social Psychology.  37, 1102 – 1117.  Study 1 Back