According to a recent news article in USA Today, racial profiling and other biased practices by law enforcement agencies are alive and well. For example, in the past year alone, Border Patrol agents have questioned Silvio Torres-Saillant three times in the Greyhound station in Syracuse, N.Y., about his immigration status and citizenship as he purchased tickets or waited in the terminal. The Syracuse University English professor, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic, believes that agents sometimes target people according to their physical looks or accents. Minority students in my classes, many of them have been working or intend to work in the criminal justice fields, share the observation.

It is unfair to assume that administrators in the criminal justice systems (particularly the police agencies) have overlooked the issue of cultural diversity and moral education, because a random survey and my personal observation show that most state and federal law enforcement academies require new recruits to undergo at least several hours of training on the ethical issues and all of the agencies have relevant policies and the code of ethics. Then the question we need to ask: Why moral education has not reduced racial profiling and other biased practices by police?

This question can be examined from several perspectives. For example, the sociological perspective may focus on the relative hierarchy of differing racial and ethnic groups in America as the explanation. From the psychological perspective, however, I think that we need to view prejudiced practices (e.g., racial profiling) not as an issue of lack of morality but as a product and manifestation of cognitive distortions. In other words, racial profiling and other biased practices persist because few efforts in the society and in criminal justice agencies have been made to address the issue of cognitive distortions.

It is important to clarify the meaning of prejudice. Although the term "prejudice" may be associated with negative feelings and behavioral tendency, the essence of prejudice involves distorted cognitions. In particular, prejudice as a type of cognitive schema involves cognitive distortions of social reality, the indicators of which may include erroneous generalization and oversimplification, the formation of social attitudes before or despite objective evidence and other inaccuracies in categorizing, evaluating, and explaining social entities.

In addition, prejudice as a type of cognitive distortions is often conceptualized as a lack of moral value. This immorality or unfair attitude deviates from a normative standard or moral value, such as the principle of fairness, equity, and equality, shared by society. However, we cannot assume prejudice as the cognitive distortions can be rectified simply by improving moral judgment or education. This is because a person uses his/her understanding of social reality to evaluate, explain, encode, accept or deny, adjust or maintain the self's social actions, and react to various situations. Perceivers' unjustified attitudes are based on their distorted perception of social reality so their cognitive distortion rationalizes and justifies their immoral or illegal actions. In other words, people view their unethical conduct (e.g., discrimination and racial profiling) as ethical because their limited and distorted cognitions of social reality serve as the basis for their moral judgments and actions.

There are two main sources of cognitive distortion: (1) stereotypes produced by social categorization; and (2) the prevalence of distorted information about minorities in this country provided by the media, books and other sources.

Research in social psychology has demonstrated that merely categorizing people as in-group and out-group members influences differential thinking, feeling, and behaving toward the in-group and out-group members. This social categorization may influence attitudes and prejudice thoughts, which are often automatic, toward individuals who are seen as out-group members. It includes a tendency to exaggerate differences between groups and similarities within one group and favors the in-group over the out-group. Those with strongest in-group affiliation show the most prejudice. This inclination will create more harm when one group holds much more power than the other group or when resources among in-groups are not distributed equitably.

Another cognitive distortion associated with social categorization involves the misunderstanding of two separate cognitive processes: (1) the deductive process, and (2) the inductive process. The deductive process refers to reasoning from a general concept to a particular observation, or applying a category to explain and make sense of observations. For example, the use of a person's group membership (e.g., race or ethnicity) to explain his/her social actions represents an example of the deductive reasoning. In contrast, the inductive process refers to reasoning from observation to concepts or theories. The source of our knowledge comes from observation or the inductive process. However, when people assume that the deductive process (the use of categories or groups) represents the understanding of social reality, with no discernment of the discrepancy between their mental category and reality (e.g., individuals of observation), they will have stereotypic mental representations of the individuals. The accurate understanding of the two processes involves the discernment that all the concepts or categories we use to describe the world are not features of reality, as we tend to believe, but are creations of the mind; they are parts of the map, not of the territory.

(To be continued...)

 Read "Why moral education has not reduced racial profiling? (2)" and

my new post "Racial profiling and a misunderstanding of probability."

About the Author

Key Sun Ph.D.

Key Sun, Ph.D., is a psychologist and social worker. He has taught at Central Washington University and Bastyr University.

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