James M. Jones
Professor of Psychology and Black American Studies
Director, Center for the Study of Diversity
Author (with Dovidio and Vietze) Psychology of diversity: Beyond prejudice and racism Wiley/Blackwell, 2013
July 18, 2013
George Zimmerman, his defense attorneys, the presiding judge and the jury proclaimed that the events that led to the shooting death of a 17 year old, unarmed black youth had nothing to do with race. It had everything to do with race. It always involves race when violence and aggression cross racial barriers.
Race is intricately woven into the culture, the institutions and the psyche of America. Its presence has been overt, intentional, self-aggrandizing, and instrumental at times, or covert, subtle, unconscious at other times. However, it is there, waiting for a drop of animus or fear to ignite its destructive potential.
Proclaiming that race had nothing to do with the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmermann confrontation ignores not only our collective racial history, but also the substantial body of research that shows its subtle and pernicious intrusion in racial interactions. Let me illustrate from the palette of social psychological research of the past 25 years.
We begin with the stereotype of blacks, particularly black men. Systematic studies of racial stereotypes began in the 1930s. The prevailing stereotypes characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, happy-go-lucky and musical. Over the years these have morphed from a childlike harmless image to a sinister one characterized by criminality, aggressiveness and athleticism. Images that reinforce the fears associated with this stereotype are often characterized by the facial features, skin tone and the clothes that persons—or imagined personas—wear.
For example, research by Stanford professor Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues shows that among black males convicted of murder in Philadelphia, PA between 1979-1999, the probability of being sentenced to death, or life in prison, depended on how prototypically black you look (over and above other factors known to influence sentencing like aggravating or mitigating circumstances, severity of the murder, the defendant’s and the victim’s socioeconomic status, and the defendant’s attractiveness.).
The more black they looked (Mr. B)—hair texture, facial features, skin tone—the more likely they were to face a death sentence (58% for black-looking men, 24% for those less prototypically black looking—Mr. A). The critical variable, though, was the race of the victim. These disparities were only found when the victim was WHITE; when the victim was black, racial features bore no relationship to the sentence-about 46% received a death penalty sentence regardless of how black they looked.
Yes, the stereotypes matter in the psyches and subsequently in the behavior of whites, even when black people per se are not part of the situation. For instance, Yale professor John Bargh and colleagues had white college students perform a long and very boring computer task, only to be told at the end that a glitch in the system required that they begin all over. Their responses were monitored and assessed for the degree of negative emotion and anger they displayed. What critically determined their anger was whether they had been shown pictures (subliminally without awareness) of black men or not. The degree of anger they displayed was significantly increased when they had images of black men in mind, even if they were unaware of it. The stereotype of black male hostility transfers to the psyche generating its own hostility in the perceiver.
Race is in our brain—its effects are located in specific brain structures and its consequences are reflected in a variety of brain processes. The brain center that guides processing of faces responds differently to faces of our own than to other racial groups. The amygdala—the area of the brain that reacts to threat and triggers a fear response—also is sensitive to race. People who have been found to harbor subtle and unconscious racial biases show greater amygdala reaction to images of black men. In addition, they show stronger startle responses to quick, sudden and unanticipated strong stimuli—loud noise, puff of air and so forth. In other words, amygdala activation—triggered by fear—causes generalized reactivity and hyper vigilance. These far-reaching effects are beyond the conscious awareness of those who proclaim race does not matter.
Research also finds that when images of black men are presented below awareness, college students and policemen alike, are more likely to identify an ambiguous image as a weapon, and to do it more quickly. Although people often believe that race was irrelevant, the association between black faces and criminality affects what is perceived.
Finally, research paradigms have been developed to study what is labeled “shooter bias”—the different probabilities based on race of shooting an unarmed suspect. Participants are shown a person on a computer screen who is holding an object. Their task is to shoot the person if he has a gun, but to refrain from shooting if he does not. These decisions are made rapidly, the target person is either black or white, and the participant’s accuracy (shooting if he has a gun, not shooting if he doesn’t) is recorded as well as the time it took to make the decision.. By now you can guess the outcome. Joshua Correll and colleagues at the University of Colorado found that the correct decision to shoot an armed target is made more quickly when the target is black; but the correct decision not to shoot an unarmed target is made more quickly when the target is white. Research shows these shooter biases are related to the cultural stereotype of black men as dangerous, and to the prototypicality of how black they look!
Race matters, it always matters. Race matters especially in confrontations when danger, fear or negative expectations are concerned. Zimmerman carried the criminal, aggressive stereotype in his head—in his case, it was apparently more conscious than unconscious—and when he found himself in a confrontation, excited and goaded by his amygdala, and succumbing to Trayvon’s superior athleticism, he shot him.
Juror B37 loudly proclaimed that race had nothing to do with her judgment and she voted for acquittal from the beginning. However, her mind likely conceived the same images that Zimmerman’s did on the fateful night. In addition, the body of research I have briefly discussed is clear about the breadth and depth of the influences of race on white psyches and behavior. Other research shows ways in which these negative effects can be mitigated suggesting it is not inevitable that these violent racial scenarios occur. However, it is clear that acting as if or even sincerely believing that race was not involved is at best delusional, and at worst self-serving. Changing the stereotypes, the meaning of blackness in the mind’s eye, is a most important step in correcting the psychological and social course our racial history has set us on.