More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Walking While Black

Modern racism and the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The recent killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black male teen, in Florida has reignited discussions regarding the problem of racism in modern America. Though all the facts of the incident are not yet clear, a few are.

First, Trayvon was walking to the house of his father's fiancé after a trip to a convenience store and, as noted, was unarmed when he was shot. Second, released police 911 recordings indicate that the shooter, George Zimmerman, was following Trayvon and continued to pursue him after the police dispatcher instructed him not to. Third, Zimmerman was not arrested at the scene even though he had shot an unarmed man.

Again, all of the facts are not yet known but this incident gives us the opportunity to think about modern racism. First, it is true that self-report surveys on racism clearly show that negative attitudes towards racial minorities are, and have been for some time, on the decline. What does this mean? It means that when people are directly asked how they feel about people of different races, they generally report positive feelings. It is rare (but possible) to find someone who will openly claim to have negative attitudes towards people based on race.

This is progress. People tend to not be openly racist (at least when filling out a survey) which is not a claim that could be made so confidently in decades past. However, declaring that one is not racist and not behaving in a racially biased manner are two different achievements. In other words, just because someone says, and maybe even believes, that he or she is not racist, does not mean that he or she would not engage in behavior that could be described as racially biased. To illustrate this point let's consider just a few behavioral studies of racism.

Who gets jobs?

In the US and the UK studies have been conducted to see if race bias exists when employers are selecting applicants for job interviews. In these studies, different job applications are created with equal qualifications. The researchers simply change the names on the applications so that some of them have black-sounding names (e.g.,Tyrone) and some of them have white- sounding names (e.g., Brad). They then send in the applications to the companies who put the job ads out and wait to see which applicants get invited for job interviews. Remember, the applicants are equally qualified.

The results of these experiments are unsettling. Applicants with white-sounding names are much more likely to be invited for an interview than equally qualified applicants with black-sounding names. In one of these studies, conducted in Boston and Chicago, applicants with white-sounding names were 50% more likely to get an interview than applicants with black-sounding names. It is also worth noting that sex differences were not observed. Males and females were equally likely to get interviews. This is good news in that it suggests that employers tend not to be sexist in their interview selection (at least the employers used in these studies). However, they do tend to be racist.

Studies also show that when black applicants are interviewed, they are treated differently by white interviewers. Specifically, the interviewers tend to sit further away from the applicant, act more nervous, and cut the interview short if the interviewee is black. And this behavior has, not surprisingly, been shown to negatively affect the interview performance of black applicants.

Who gets cabs?

Similar tests have been conducted to determine if taxis are more likely to stop for white people than for black people. During daylight hours, there seems to be little difference. However, at night, taxis are more likely to pass by a black individual looking for a ride than a white individual.

Who gets shot?

When it comes to more life and death situations, the research on racial bias seems particularly disturbing. First, experimental studies using college students and members of the community (not actual police officers) find that in a video game simulation in which people are asked to shoot a person if he is armed and not shoot a person if he is unarmed, people are faster to pull the trigger if the target person is black than if he is white. In other words, people are more trigger happy when the video game target is black.

In my next post I will discuss some further research on this topic that highlights the importance of police training in reducing this racial bias in the decision to shoot or not shoot. However, studies also show that police officers are more likely to use force against non-white than white suspects. And black suspects are much more likely to be killed by police than white suspects.

These are just a few of many examples of behavioral racial bias. The point I want to drive home is that even though our society is, according to surveys, shifting its attitudes on race in a positive direction, bias is still commonplace. I could go on about the many more studies that evidence racial bias across a wide range of situations, but I hope these few examples sufficiently make the case.

It is easy to pat ourselves on the back about how progressive we are when it comes to matters of race. After all, as many people like to point out, we elected a black president. It is also comforting to want to accept the perspective that our society is fair and everyone has the same shot at all the opportunities this country has to offer. But the truth is, racial bias still exists and will not go away as long as we tell ourselves it is a thing of the past.

For further reading on the causes of racism, please refer to my previous post on the psychological motives of racism.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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