After the acquittal: The need for honest dialogue about racial prejudice and stereotyping

Psychological research shows that people often notice differences between themselves and others, but judgments about the differences can be based on biased thinking.

By Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD

A national uproar

George Zimmerman’s acquittal of second degree murder charges in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin has unleashed a wave of outrage and angry protests across the country, even prompting President Obama to say, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." Zimmerman’s culpability will continue to be debated and likely adjudicated for months to come. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced it will continue its investigation into potential civil rights charges and, reportedly, Martin’s parents are considering a wrongful death lawsuit. 

Beyond the specific outcomes of this case, the trial and verdict have generated intense national discussion of larger questions about race, racial profiling and stereotyping, racism and discrimination, perceptions of threat and the value our society places on the lives of African-American males. Among many critical issues that are part of this nationwide debate are the ways in which perceptions of threat are informed and shaped by race, and the impact of stereotypes on the lives and experiences of stereotyped groups. Psychologists have conducted extensive research addressing these systemic concerns.

What qualifies as suspicious?

Many have asked whether Martin would have been deemed suspicious if he had been a white teenager in a hoodie walking home with a bag of candy and an iced tea. We may never get a definitive answer. However, on a larger scale, it is evident that the threshold for what qualifies as suspicious is lower for African-Americans due to stereotyping. Racial profiling by law enforcement explicitly relies on stereotypes to target, search or detain people of color for suspected criminal activity — take the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, for example. Even while still in school, African-American youths are disproportionately disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons than their white peers (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force [PDF, 96KB], 2008), not to mention the countless commonplace microaggressions African-Americans experience by those who suspect them of criminality (PDF, 2.01MB) (APA, 2012). APA’s Resolution on Racial/Ethnic Profiling and Other Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Law and Security Enforcement Activities has documented how biases based on race/ethnicity can operate at an unconscious level and how stereotypes can affect who appears “out of place” and who is stopped by law enforcement.

Stand your ground

Florida’s “stand your ground” law relies on a person’s reasonable belief that he or she is in imminent peril of death or great bodily harm. The statute’s ambiguity in its use of "reasonable" is problematic. This places the onus on the jury to try to ascertain the reasonableness of a defendant’s beliefs based on subjective standards, which can be influenced by conscious and unconscious prejudices. Recent data show that Floridian defendants claiming stand your ground are more likely to prevail if the victim is black — 73 percent face no penalty compared to 59 percent if the victim is white. 

Although APA does not take a position with regard to stand your ground or similar laws, psychological research suggests that bias — which can operate below the level of awareness — affects these kinds of judgments. As the APA report Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity (PDF, 1.19MB) states: “Research has shown that noticing differences occurs automatically. However, while noticing differences might not be prejudiced, noticing differences is often automatically associated with judgments about those differences. Those judgments are often negatively biased and [have] led to discriminatory behavior” (APA 2012, p. 5).

Systemic issues at work

We have not yet realized the dreams of a truly equal nation. Our nation’s ugly legacy of slavery and genocide perpetuates entrenched social inequities. Dual Pathways to a Better America points out the ways racism and other forms of prejudice harm our society — “discrimination, stereotyping, and bias generate exclusion and marginalization for certain groups and wrap a blanket of inclusion, security, and opportunity around others” (APA, 2012, p. 1). 

Racism and discrimination do not have to be overt to be damaging. Microaggressions – everyday, seemingly minor verbal, nonverbal or environmental slights delivered with or without intent — can harm the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and contribute to inequities in health care, education and employment (Sue, 2010). Also, Dual Pathways to a Better America indicates “perceiving that one has been discriminated against is detrimental to both mental and physical health” (p. 5).

A time for honest dialogue

George Zimmerman’s acquittal has reignited a national debate and it is important that this dialogue continue. The Dual Pathways to a Better America report discusses how codes of silence, politeness and constraint on the topic of race hinder honest and meaningful dialogue. Psychologists, with their understanding of human behavior, can contribute to this discussion. Ultimately, honest dialogues on race can lead to increased group understanding and improved group relations.

As Obama said last week, Americans must do some soul searching. Ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?” he said. “That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”

See also:

References

American Psychological Association. (2001). APA resolution on racial/ethnic profiling and other racial/ethnic disparities in law and security enforcement activities. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.  

American Psychological Association. (2012). Dual pathways to a better America: Preventing discrimination and promoting diversity. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. 

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852-862. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.9.852

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.