You don’t have to think you’re racist to feel racist. You can subconsciously fear Black people even if you voted for Obama and cringe every time you hear the “N” word. And if you happen to be an armed White police officer, you may be quicker to pull the trigger on an African-American.
That’s the takeaway from Mother Jones reporter Chris Mooney, who went to New York University’s psychology department to try to understand why, in a culture that seems to widely accept African Americans, police officers seem to kill far too many of them.
At NYU, Mooney took something called the Implicit Association Test, in which you match images of people’s faces with both a race (“African American” or “European American”) and an adjective (like “evil” or “happy”). You have to work fast, on instinct. And even though Mooney is about as liberal a White guy as they come, he showed a “strong automatic preference” for his own race. Most people who take the test online (it’s right here if you’re interested) appear biased, even as fewer and fewer Americans report having racist feelings. It’s because of how the human brain works – once we’ve categorized people as having certain characteristics, we project those traits onto everyone with their skin color.
We may never know if the cops who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner were overtly racist; but regardless, there’s a good chance they would have acted less violently with White suspects. That’s not an excuse for what they did, but a truth that probably applies to most “peace” officers – and that’s a problem.
The good news is that prejudice can be unlearned. It’s a process yet to be perfected, but research has proved hopeful. Brian Nosek and his colleagues at the University of Virginia tried 17 methods of changing racially biased minds, and found that placing people in imagined scenarios in which African-Americans were heroes, not hostiles, made a difference.
For instance, subjects “read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant.” After this anti-racism training, participants tested as less prejudiced than the control group.
So bring on more studies. The better we understand the psychological triggers of White-on-Black violence (and vice versa), the better equipped we are to stop it. And police departments take note: Training your officers to shed their prejudice should be a top priority, so that no more Black men have to die.