Race, Violence, and Illusory Correlations

The attributions we make about race and violence

Posted Jun 21, 2015

            A young man walks into a church.  He shoots and kills 9 people in a prayer meeting.  Why?  How can we possibly understand such a horrific action?  How do you explain his murdering nine innocent people?  Was he a troubled young man or was he expressing the racism that continues to exist in our country? 

            I am writing about the mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.  The young man who is the suspect is white and the victims were black.  The reports I’ve read indicate racial motivations for the murders.  But how do you explain his actions?  What type of explanation have you considered?  Was he a troubled young man, alienated from society?  Do you wonder if he suffered some form of mental illness?  Do you blame his actions on growing up in a racist society that continues to honor a war based on holding blacks as slaves?  Does it matter that the flag from that war decorated his car and flies over the state capital of South Carolina?  Do you blame a society in which guns and violence are central features?  Was this a terrorist act? 

            Consider another attempted mass murder.  Two young men drove to a cartoon drawing contest and attempted to kill the guards and participants.  These men identified as Islamic and were attacking a contest to draw cartoons of Muhammad.  How do you explain their actions?  Were they troubled young men, alienated from broader society?  Do you wonder if they suffered some form of mental illness?  Did their religion or culture contribute to the actions?  Were they radicalized by the internet?  Was this a terrorist act? 

            These two violent actions are very different and I don’t mean to equate them.  The perpetrators are also different.  Nonetheless, how we explain these violent acts reflect basic information processing biases.  How people explain these actions depends on the minority and majority status of the perpetrators.  People are more likely to attribute the cause of someone’s negative behavior to their ethnic and racial group when the individual is a member of a minority.   People are more likely to attribute the cause to something about the person when the individual is the member of a majority group.  This reflects an illusory correlation, a type of biased information processing. 

            We notice both acts of violence; after all, both have been appropriately featured in the news.  The trick is whether we notice the violence and various ethnic/racial/religious groups as belonging together. 

            For minority groups and negative actions, illusory correlations mean that we notice violence and connect the violence to the race or ethnicity of the perpetrator.  Islamic men and acts of violence get noticed and remembered.  Black men, crime, and looting get noticed and encoded together.  People attribute violence and other negative behaviors to that fact that the men are Islamic or black or Hispanic or any other minority race and ethnic group. 

            Young white men and violence?  The violence is noticed but is not attributed to race or other aspects of the man’s ethnic identity.  In these cases, the violence is attributed to things that make him unusual for his group.  Maybe mental illness, maybe his upbringing.  Anything except his race and ethnic identity.  In this way, people start to see violence as part of the ethnic and racial group for minorities but not majorities. 

            This is the essence of an illusory correlation.  With minorities, we see the violence and the race of the person.  We start to see the two as belonging together.  We judge the negative behavior as illustrative of people from that racial or ethnic background.  For members of the majority, we see the violence but we don’t see the race of the perpetrator.  The violence doesn’t get associated with being white.  We even go out of our way to note that the perpetrator is unusual. 

            Illusory correlations contribute to stereotypes and racism.  Since we notice the negative behaviors by anyone who is a member of a minority group, we build our view of that group from the negative behaviors.  With people from the majority, their behaviors don’t reflect on the group as a whole. 

            Think about how the news is presented.  When a minority individual commits a shooting, the race of the perpetrator is noted.  When a white person commits a crime, race generally isn’t even noted in news reports.  The only way you know the person was white was that race wasn’t mentioned!

            Illusory correlations drive the way we think about violence, crime, terrorism, and racial groups.  There was unanimity in the news that the attack by two Islamic men at the cartoon contest was a terrorist act.  As I write this, there is no such agreement that the racist attack in Charleston was a terrorist attack. 

            Illusory correlations also matter if we try to think about how to respond to such acts.  If we think it is something about certain types of people, then we can justify a great variety of violence against ‘those people.’  If we think the crime was committed by one person who was unusual or evil, then there is little to be done.  Maybe we can do better to watch for people suffering with whatever problem we attribute the violence to.  Neither approach recognizes systemic racism.  Neither approach recognizes the need for a consideration of the role of violence in our society.  Illusory correlations keep us from seeing the real nature of violence in our society.  Illusory correlations probably keep us from recognizing systemic racism, a lack of equality of opportunity, and the underlying problems that continue to exist in our society.  Traumatic events like the shooting in Charleston remind me that we have a lot of work to do. 

Photo Credit for teaser image:  Cal Sr from Newport, NC, US, on Wikimedia Commons