Racism and the Brain

Threat-coding brain areas may be activated more when looking at black faces.

Posted Jun 04, 2020

When we meet people, our brains readily make judgments about them. These judgments result from many things, such as previous experiences with similar people, how the media portrays these people, what our parents taught us about them, and how they behaved towards them in front of us.

Of course, we can intentionally revolt against these judgments by utilizing our executive function brain areas such as the frontal lobe. Unfortunately, conscious deletion of these assumptions does not guarantee non-conscious removals.

Although we human beings may arrogantly believe that we are in control of all of our thoughts and actions, research has shown otherwise. We have both logical and reflexive brain networks. The logical one requires time and energy, whereas the reflexive one does not. Because it is easier to use the reflexive one, we are mostly on autopilot.

The consequences of this brain arrangement can lead to disastrous societal issues such as racism and prejudice. At the forefront of this dilemma are African Americans. So, you may adamantly think that you are not racist and your scores from paper-pencil questionnaires confirm that you are not racist. However, that does not mean that you are not racist. Your non-conscious reservoir may be replete with media images, others’ racist actions, and/or your parents’ thoughts and actions toward black people. Your mental reflexes may elicit responses such as holding your purse tighter in the presence of a black person, worry when walking in front of a black person, or assuming that an unarmed black person has a gun in their pocket.

Assumptions such as these may have contributed to the killings of many black people. For example, Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager who was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator that night.

Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. Despite millions of dollars poured into trainings against such heinous acts, the outcomes have been insufficient. One of the reasons for their failure to cause positive changes may be that they target the logical part of our brain. We must get creative and sculpt workshops that discipline our non-conscious system. It is imperative to access America’s collective non-conscious and do a lot more than remodeling.

There are plenty of studies peeking into our non-conscious brain processes while looking at black faces. In one study, the researchers presented faces of black and white people to self-identified black and white participants (1). They reported differential amygdala activation to black and white faces. It is important to note, that the researchers did not set up the study to examine racial bias. Another study looked specifically at the differences between explicit and implicit racial bias and amygdala activation (2).

Intriguingly, amygdala activation was correlated with implicit, but not with explicit measures of racial attitudes. In other words, the participants with the most marked negative implicit responses toward blacks displayed the greatest difference in amygdala activation to black and white faces (you can take the Implicit Association Test, IAT).

Moreover, there was a trend toward a greater startle eye-blink when looking at black faces as compared to white faces. Even when black and white faces were subliminally (30ms) presented to participants in the MRI scanner, the amygdala still overreacted to black faces that it did not know (3). But we love Halle Berry and Chris Rock, right? It turns out that the signs of racial bias were extinguished for famous black people. When famous white and black faces were used in the same fMRI study, the amygdala bias disappeared (2).

These neuroimaging studies and many others suggest that the brain code that signals “threat” is automatically activated to a greater degree by encountering black people. The amygdala and other threat-related brain areas have a special role in protecting us against danger and compute these categorical decisions within milliseconds. These reflexive computations complete much earlier than the potential logical system involvement. Decades of training added "black faces" to the list of "threats" embedded in the amygdala lexicon. Thus, split-second decisions, such as to shoot a gun at an unfamiliar young black man, may continue to be far too likely unless our collective American unconscious gets reformed. 


(1) Hart A. J., Whalen P. J., Shin L. M., McInerney S. C., Fischer H., Rauch S. L. (2000). Differential response in the human amygdala to racial outgroup vs ingroup face stimuli. Neuroreport 11, 2351–2355 10.1097/00001756-200008030-00004

(2) Phelps E. A., O'Connor K. J., Cunningham W. A., Funayama E. S., Gatenby J. C., Gore J. C., et al. (2000). Performance on indirect measures of race evaluation predicts amygdala activation. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 12, 729–738 10.1162/089892900562552

(3) Cunningham W. A., Johnson M. K., Raye C. L., Gatenby J., Gore J. C., Banaji M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces. Psychol. Sci. 15, 806–813