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The Role of Implicit Bias and Police Work Revealed in New Research

racismLast summer, we published a speech by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi who spoke to an audience about the role of implicit bias and how it impacted the Trayvon Martin case.

In his speech, Mr. Adachi cited research from neuroscience to give insight into the Trayvon Martin story.

He said, “In his 911 call, George Zimmerman said that that Trayvon ‘looks like he is up to no good’ or that ‘he’s on drugs or something.’ He also said that Trayvon ‘looks black.’  Zimmerman saw Trayvon as threatening even though Trayvon had not behaved in a threatening manner.  ‘F…ing punks, these assholes, they always get away,’ Zimmerman said.  Even though Trayvon was on his way home from the store, holding Skittles and an iced tea, he was not able to convince Zimmerman, at least through his appearance, that he was just walking down the street, minding his own business.”

“This is where implicit bias comes in,” he explained.  “As we discussed earlier, amygdala activation levels match implicit racial bias levels.  If someone sees a threat, then implicit bias will increase the threat they feel. As a result, someone can see an African American man, decide that he is a threat because he is African American, and then become overly aggressive toward him.  And this is something of which they may not even be conscious.”

New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology bears much of this out.  Black boys, as young as 10, are shown in this study by researchers at UCLA, Penn State, and the University of Pennsylvania, to not be given the same presumption of childhood innocence as their white peers.

Instead, they’re considered to be much older than what they are, perceived to be guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias — prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes.

To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as “It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.”

To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes.

Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks.

The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks — conscious or not — was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.

The authors noted that police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of blacks could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children.

“We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Professor Goff said.

The study also involved 264, mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.

The students were also shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, black or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. The students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found. Researchers used questionnaires to assess the participants’ prejudice and dehumanization of blacks. They found that participants who implicitly associated blacks with apes thought the black children were older and less innocent.

In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About David Greenwald

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

16 comments

  1. David wrote:

    > The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent
    > regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less
    > innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age
    > 10, the researchers found.

    If I did a study and wanted to prove that their is an “Implicit Bias” against white people I could easily show photos of black people from “The Cosby Show” and white people from “Sons of Anarchy”.

    We all know that there are a small number of truly racist people (both black and white) but most people are biased more by the way people dress and act.

    There are a small number of perfectly nice perfectly innocent white guys that just happen to shave their heads, get neck tattoos and give people the evil eye like actual members of the Aryan Brotherhood, but there are much bigger groups of perfectly nice perfectly innocent Black and Latino guys that dress and act like they are members of the Bloods or MS13. Anyone that does not have an “Implicit Bias” against someone that looks like they are a member of the Aryan Brotherhood is foolish (just like someone that does not have an “Implicit Bias” against someone that looks like they are a member of the Bloods or MS13)…

    > Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation
    > for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children
    > may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

    One of the African American kids I went to High School with weighed 60 pounds more than me as a freshman and started on the varsity football team just a few months after we were both turned 14. This kid had a mustache as a sophomore when I didn’t shave for the first time until I was 17 (and didn’t shave every day until I was 21). It is not “racist” to say that some “people of color” that look older when they are younger it is a statement of fact since (both male and female) Blacks and Latinos hit puberty earlier:

    http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/20/health/boys-early-puberty/

    • “We all know that there are a small number of truly racist people (both black and white) but most people are biased more by the way people dress and act.”

      Correct, but part of what we would want to access is whether non-truly racist people nevertheless have subconscious bias that cloud their thinking when they evaluate blacks versus whites.

      The key to this study was that pictures of otherwise similar black and white children drew very different responses.

      • SouthofDavis wrote: ” It is not “racist” to say that some “people of color” that look older when they are younger it is a statement of fact since (both male and female) Blacks and Latinos hit puberty earlier:”

        Thank you for highlighting one of the many points of false logic in these studies.

    • Oh my…it is quite rare for a child of that age to look like an adult man but on rare occasions you will find boys (European, African, Asian, Latino) who are physically more mature. Two points: violence against anyone is not a good choice. Secondly, most harmed African boys are not overly endowed so the harm is mostly coming from the police officers’ fear. African police officers also internalize the same stereotypes promoted in this country so they have done harm to innocent African boys and people as well. Then there are those white colored apes and monkeys. Do we know their effect on police officers’ violence and victims? Was the overlook a micro-aggression? Researchers doing the research carry biases and blind spots too.

      What I observe is that 50% of the people in prison are Africans while only 10% of the American population. They come from capitalist based poverty of unimaginable harm. When I look at cultural violence, it appears to be epidemically high in American European decedents. I wonder how can 2 African boys be killed by Europeans citizens when NO intent of harm was present and the judicial system validate it by finding the murders innocent. I have not heard of one European or other group’s child being enduring such harm. It makes me angry and helpless. I cannot protect our African children.

      • What? Police officers are well aware of the crime statistics, and of who commit violent crimes and murders. For example, police officers know that the vast majority of these crimes are committed by men – is that sexism, or reality based in fact?

        You state that 50% of those in prison are Africans (I’m surmising you mean African-American), but you don’t mention that most of these crimes are black-on-black. So if a large percentage of these are indeed black-on-black, you seem to be spinning something else.

        Lastly, capitalism and democracy combined provide the highest living standards in the world. We know this. And even with this, we still often provide welfare, housing, medical, food, and more to the tune of $30-45,000 for those who are the poorest amoung us. How is that “unimaginable harm”?

        • Well there is no argument that racial profiling goes on in America and many Africans in America are arrested but found innocent. An analysis by the NYCLU revealed that innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports.

          You raise an interesting gender question. Since far more men than women commit crime, is that sexism? In general, criminology has not been analyzed in this way. From my perspective, the answer is yes. As a preschool teacher and child mental health specialist, boys require more battle ground play then girls. Boys aggressive contact is different from their angry aggression contact. Teachers have to be taught the difference so that boys are not punished/harmed for their aggressive play. As boys grow up, they are taught that aggression is OK, warranted, in self-defense for self, family and country. Hence Euro-Americans spend 10 times more than any other industrialize country on their military.

          On a personal as well as political level, aggression is a show of dominance which is about access to resources. As culture has evolved, men are expected to acquire resources for their families (although that is now changing). Who defines crime holds the power of another’s person freedom and success. On the interpersonal level, as the Euro-American cultural focus has shifted from physical prowess to language, language is used to mitigate violence by creating an understanding that leads to compassion. Fear of punishment is not working. Dueling and other socially sanctioned male aggressions are now outlawed. In its place men use criminal law to create male dominated hierarchies and to gain resources. The prisons are often filled with police and offender violence. Yes, it is sexist.

          Culturally, women have been trained to be far more passive and language adept. As a result, they are less likely to violate the law. Such factors keep them out of the competition. As they enter the aggressive physical contact arena to acquire resources and vent anger, they too are incarcerated.

          If you look more closely, you will note that Africans in America have their own (culture) set of rules that permit more violent retaliation to those who offend them as well as their own music, clothing, communication styles and moral values. One might say the young males are in the dueling phase. Most still live in neighborhoods populated by Africans so the crimes are usually against Africans in their neighborhoods. Africans’ criminal rules conflict with white male rules of criminality and this indeed explains why more African are imprisoned by the Euro-American legal system they have not designed. Unfortunately, the treatment by teachers, parents and other authorities is punishment resulting in negative reinforcement which actually increases the frequency of unwanted behavior.

          Add to the facts above, African-Americans suffer from a poverty rate of 27.2 percent—the highest of any group—compared to 25.6 percent of Latinos, 11.7 percent for Asians and 9.7 percent for whites. All of these poverty figures are much too high, but for blacks and Latinos in particular, poverty is far, far too high. And it seems like a permanent fixture on the American landscape that presidents and other politicians will not or cannot tackle. Please don’t tell Africans in America that they should be less aggressive because their poverty is less than those in underdeveloped countries. I will tell Euro-Americans to get rid of poverty everywhere so that our human ingenuity can be share by all.

          • Yes, police engage in criminal profiling. So if an individual hangs out on a known drug-dealing corner at 3AM, wearing a hoodie and gold chains, shouting out to potential customers, if that individual is a white male or a Filipina woman, they’ll face close scrutiny.

            You wrote: “If you look more closely, you will note that Africans in America have their own (culture) set of rules that permit more violent retaliation to those who offend them as well as…” … Interesting.

            Poverty in black communities? I’m guessing if African Americans took up the wider cultural norm called marriage, those numbers would be slashed overnight. President Barack Obama, himself pained over an absentee Father, has spoken on the topic of young black men taking responsibility for their children on several occasions … but I don’t think he has taken the marriage leap yet … I guess his radical roots are pretty deep, though he did choose marriage himself, despite his cohort of young male staffers with whom he plays golf on a consistent basis.

  2. Davis Progressive

    one of the key things with subconscious or implicit bias is that it exists as a lens that colors our vision of the world and we may not have awareness of how it does so. we all want to think we are free from racism or prejudice, but are we? do we clutch our belongings more tightly when the black man approaches and pay less attention in a similar situation when it is a white person. and this all begins early on and apparently even at young ages.

  3. About 20 years ago a well-known New Yorker said this: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved…. After all we have been through. Just to think we can’t walk down our own streets, how humiliating.”

    Is this person racist? Or do they stereotyping?

    “Remarks at a meeting of Operation PUSH in Chicago (27 November 1993). Quoted in “Crime: New Frontier – Jesse Jackson Calls It Top Civil-Rights Issue” by Mary A. Johnson, 29 November 1993, Chicago Sun-Times (ellipsis in original).” Source: Wikiquote

    All of these studies talk about “bias” – but the people they study have real-life experiences. We know the crime statistics, and before we get off into police potentially doing this or that wrong, much of the crime is black-on-black. So if a black citizen calls in to police to report one black or multi-racial man beating up or harming another black or multi-racial man, what does racism have to do with that? Nothing!

    Aware individuals know that most gangs today are Latino or Black. Watch the news, movies, read the police stories, drive by an inner-city street corner where drugs are being sold.

    Regarding Zimmerman, Adachi left out a whole lot of pertinent facts. For example, I believe that Zimmerman started a business with an African American friend, and is also multi-racial himself. Why do those on the left always leave this out?

    This housing area had seen a recent rash of thefts, and Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. I know that that is a controversial point, but many individuals who are up to no good wear a hoodie, its become part of the persona of many rappers and hooligans, and it does send a non-verbal message that many would take negatively, regardless of race.

    Further, if I recall this sad, tragic case, Zimmerman didn’t identify any ethnicity when he called in!! He described behaviors. The dispatcher then asked what race the individual was, so Adachi is incorrectly characterizing how the call transpired. And that is pretty huge.

    And this whole comparison of people to animals is half-baked and silly.

    • This is also a tough case to argue. Trayvon Martin could have run home, or he could have called the police. Heck, he could have hidden somewhere, or run back to the store. Instead, if I recall, he choose to jump Zimmerman, and slam his head into the concrete. I believe this was proven at trial and there were color photographs which showed Zimmerman’s head injuries. Trayvon Martin’s Facebook or Twitter page also had lots of inflammatory posts, references to violence and drugs, and references to fighting and guns.

      This was a sad story, but I also think a tough one to argue.

      • Trayvon was not the aggressor. No African would have accosted him in the way Zimmerman did. He had no context for this behavior. In the South and other places, when White Europeans advance like Zimmerman did this meant death. Danger surrounds you. As a teenager, his judgment is not optimum. Zimmerman was told by police not to follow him. Apparently as a full adult his judgment was off. Yes, lots of young men have those type of references on those sites. Zimmerman had been arrested for violent behaviors.

        Beyond the 2012 Martin shooting, Zimmerman has had other encounters with the law, including two incidents in 2005, and five incidents in 2013.
        In July of 2005, when he was 21, Zimmerman was arrested after shoving an undercover alcohol-control agent while a friend of Zimmerman’s was being arrested for underage drinking. The officer alleged that Zimmerman had said, “I don’t care who you are,” followed by a profanity, and had refused to leave the area after the officer had shown their badge. The charges were subsequently dropped. Why?

        On September 9, 2013, in Lake Mary, Florida, police responded to a 911 call by Zimmerman’s estranged wife, who reported that Zimmerman had threatened her and her father with a gun and had punched her father in the face. Zimmerman was briefly detained and questioned by police.

        On November 18, 2013, Zimmerman’s girlfriend called the police alleging that after she had asked Zimmerman to leave her home, accosted her with a gun. He was charged with aggravated assault with a weapon – a felony – as well as domestic violence battery and criminal mischief.

        A boy and a dwarfed man seeking power in America. In the above out of control situations Zimmerman was the aggressor. Trayvon’s naughty behaviors were curse words and maybe marijuana. Can you consider that Trayvon might have been scared for his life? If you can then you may know that the brain redirects such info to the fight or flight part of the brain, the amygdala. Problem solving stops. Maybe Martin chose to fight rather than to flee. At his age, he would not want to be a sissy. What a tragedy and justice failed

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