Race Always Matters!

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.).

Mr. A and Mr. BThe 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.



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9 thoughts on “Race Always Matters!

  1. James:

    I agree. Race may have had something to do with the confrontation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. But I doubt that it ALWAYS involves race “when violence and aggression cross racial barriers.” If so, what are we to make of the FBI statistics that blacks are seven times more likely than whites to commit murder, and eight times more likely to commit robbery — and more than 30 times more likely to commit a violent crime against whites than vice versa?

    • Thanks for your comment on my Race Always Matters blog post. Of course, nothing is ever absolutely always. However, my point is that it is often and usually relevant when we cross-racial barriers (in either direction), and protestations that it was not involved are naïve. As for what to make of the statistics you cite, it depends on how you frame the issue. The 7 times more likely to murder and eight times more likely to commit robbery are interesting statistics but are part of a more complex assessment of criminal justice, social justice and race. By themselves they do not permit meaningful interpretation.

      However, relevant to my blog post is your suggestion that blacks are 30 times more likely to commit violent crimes against whites than vice versa. The 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Statistics report that when whites were victims of murder, 83% of the time the offender was another white person, and14% of the time, a black person. When a black person was the victim, 91% of the time it was another black person, and 7.2% of the tie it was a white person. Whites are also more likely to kill women (59.3%) than blacks are (36.8%).

      Statistics show that in 2009, 49.6% of those arrested for murder were white and 48.4% were black. Perhaps you meant that blacks were 7 times more likely than whites to commit murder as a percentage of the population. The white homicide rate was .001% of the white population and the black rate was .007% of the black population. While .007% may be 7 times .001%, the seven times the white rate claim is misleading and falls prey to the law of small numbers—making a hasty conclusion without considering all of the variables. White adults were arrested at 58.7 percent for violent crimes, and since black juveniles were arrested at 51.6%, the overall rate for white adults would be even higher. Seventy percent of all adult arrests were of whites, roughly equal to their percent of the population. Black adult arrests were 28%, exceeding their percentage of the population by about double. However, when you factor in the juvenile violence rate, racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and assorted other issues, that number is inflated. Moreover, we know the conviction rate is higher for blacks, so the ultimate numbers are a function of variables that are not reducible to a simple declaration of black hyper-criminality.

      Our psychological research shows that race matters in subtle and important ways even when people are unaware of it. My point in the blog was that race intrudes in ways that affect people including judges, jurors and policemen alike. The violent crime statistics you cite do not really bear directly on my arguments, and the cross-racial implications you draw are not supported by FBI statistics. Thanks for taking the time both to read the post and to comment. I think blogs are most useful if they spark valuable dialogue and further analysis.

      • Powerful James! I love how you peel back the analysis in response to Roy Wolters comment. Your offer Black men and crime the complexity and nuance they deserve. Agreed, oftentimes analysis of Black men and crime, are oversimplified and ham-fisted. Absolute numbers of Black men and crime in a racist and classist society or context are extremely misleading, as you point out, particularly, when policies are put in place to more aggressively hyper-incarcerate the men. The larger question and assumption is do Black men/people committ more crime. Well, if we look at crack-cocaine use/sales, data would suggest that Blacks use/sell more crack-cocaine. However, according to the U. S. Commission Report (2005/2006) 2/3 of all crack-cocaine are white, however, 82% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine were Black while Whites only accounted for 8.8%. And we see the same kind of racial disparity with other forms of drugs (i. e. marijuana, heorin, prescription drugs, etc.) and crime. So James you are right, arrest and incarceration numbers of Blacks, are extremely misleading. James, you should consider expanding this argument and publishing this argument.

        Great work brother!!!!

  2. It is true that race [almost] always matters, and what people often ignore than it’s not a dichotomy: it does, or it doesn’t. There are at least 2 dimensions to the effects of race, communication and magnitude, and the latter effects range from 0 to 100 rather than 0 to 1. Both can only be truly gauged with data, but the evidence is pretty clear. The communication dimension is about the extent to which the effects of race are clear to the senses; it ranges from subtle to overt. As stated, the magnitude dimension is about the impact of the race. When the two dimensions are combined it’s clear that race can have a subtle weak or strong effect, or an overt weak or strong effect. There are other dimensions that could be added such as level of intent by an actor, or perceived impact on target; but in general when evaluating the extent to which race matters it’s important to remember that it’s more than a Yes-No question.

    • So yes Race [almost] always matters, and given the dimensionality you propose, the question is only the degree of mattering and the nature of its manifestations.

  3. Thank you, Professor Jones, for dismantling this small amount of the nonsense spewed by Raymond Wolters so thoroughly and calmly. I would not have had the self-control to be so civil to him.

    For those readers who are not familiar with the name, Professor Raymond Wolters is the Thomas Muncy Keith Professor of History at the University of Delaware, and has been on the UD faculty since 1965. Although he (humbly) doesn’t maintain a complete list of his publications and invited lectures on his public faculty website, he has:
    * been a featured speaker at the “American Renaissance Conference” (a so-called “race-realist” or white-supremacist rally) in 2004, 2010, and 2011,
    *published a “glowing” book review of the book “White Identity” by the white-supremacist founder of “American Renaissance” ,Jared Taylor, in the pseudo-academic white-separatist journal “Occidental Quarterly”,
    *been a featured guest on the racist (or white-nationalist, as they prefer to be called) blog vdare.com

    Wolters is pictured at the bottom of the “statement of principals” webpage for the Council of Conservative Citizens, among the pantheon of white-separatist so-called thinkers: http://topconservativenews.com/introduction/statement-of-principles/


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