Racial bias, profiling and microaggression: The subtle yet harmful byproducts of racism and discrimination

Commentaries and essays offer discussions of how psychological research and practice can improve race relations

Tiffany G. Townsend, PhD

In February 2012, many were horrified by the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. Although the details of the case are still emerging, one fact is indisputable; a young African-American man was needlessly killed at the hands of another man. Concerns about racial bias, racial profiling and stereotyping quickly began to surface in the media, and as the wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend of African-American males, I was saddened that, in 2012, the men in my life could still face mortal danger simply because of the color of their skin. In fact, this year, the Nation’s first African-American president is poised to serve a second historic term, yet, if he were dressed in a hoodie, and walking alone in a racially homogenous neighborhood, he too may be stereotyped as a criminal.

The deadly effects of racism and discrimination are certainly not new in this country and psychologists have been studying racism, discrimination and their harmful byproducts for years. Indeed, on the eve of President Obama’s first presidential term in 2008, a special issue of the Communiqué was also devoted to psychology and racism, precipitated by a harmful example of microaggression perpetrated against one of our own; the hanging of a noose on the office door of psychology professor, Madonna Constantine, PhD. Once Barack Obama was elected, many hoped that race relations would improve and yet four years later, racial hate crimes still occur in this country, despite having a man of color at the helm.

While there have been significant advances in the psychological study of racism, the following section was not intended to be a comprehensive review of those advances. Instead, the commentaries and essays are intended to begin a dialogue concerning the ways in which psychological research and practice can be used to help craft a solution to the race relation problems in this country. A commentary by Kevin Nadal, a leading researcher in understanding the impact of microaggressions is featured followed by essays from two graduate students of psychology, Steven Kniffley, Jr., and Dave Jean. It is unlikely a coincidence that all three contributors to this section are men of color. Certainly their emotional reaction to the incident increased its personal significance, but each used research to offer an interesting perspective to move the thinking on the psychology of racism forward. Over the past several months, Trayvon Martin’s killing has prompted many of us to think about and discuss the problem of racism in this country. However, it is hoped that the following pieces will prompt us to begin thinking of ways that we can personally become part of the solution. For additional information on racism, discrimination, racial profiling, racial bias and/or microaggression, please see select APA documents and relevant sessions from APA's 2012 Annual Convention, Aug. 2-5, in Orlando, Fla., that are included at the end of this section.