News & Politics

The Neuroscience Behind Why White Cops Kill Black Men

Studies may shed some light on why white police officers who aren’t consciously racist are quick to pull the trigger on black men.

Photo Credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock.com

If you’ve paid any attention at all to the news during the past year, or simply are on social media, then chances are you’ve seen real life videos of white cops shooting and killing black males when the situation did not warrant it. The most recent video to have surfaced captured the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, for which he has been charged with first-degree murder. Earlier this year, a similar video was released of a white South Carolina cop shooting a 50-year-old unarmed black man in the back as he was running away. Although in these cases it was clear that the officers were not presented with any lethal threat while they fired their weapons multiple times, there are also countless cases where police officers have discharged their firearms when the level of threat was more ambiguous.

A classic example of this occurred in 2014 when another South Carolina policeman shot an unarmed African American who he had stopped in a parking lot for a seatbelt violation. The cop asked for an ID from the young man, who subsequently reached under the seat for his wallet, but was shot in the leg before he could even take it out. Upon inspection of the body-cam video, it becomes evident that the jumpy, trigger-happy cop probably did fear for his life. At the same time, it is also clear that he shouldn’t have, as the behavior of the driver involved nothing out of the ordinary. One could reasonably argue, and many did, that if the driver had been white, the cop wouldn’t have reacted the way he did.

Does this mean that the officer was a racist, and that he fired his gun purely out of hate? Without actually being inside the cop’s mind, there is no way to know for sure, but we can know for certain that many similar situations have transpired where white officers acted on gut instinct, and not out of animosity towards African Americans.

What needs to be understood by the prosecutors of such cases, and by the public at large, is the distinction between explicit and implicit racism. Where explicit racism is intentional and conscious, implicit racism involves a subconscious bias that causes one to treat members of other races unequally. Implicit racism likely plays a significant role in many of the cases involving white cops shooting black males, and it is also likely that these cops genuinely believe they hold no prejudice at all. In other words, white police officers may perceive black males to be a threat for behaving in ways that wouldn’t seem suspicious for white males. In fact, an overwhelming number of studies from the fields of neuroscience and psychology provide evidence to support this notion.

For example, studies have shown that while some white individuals answer survey questions with responses that reflect positive attitudes toward blacks, their behavioral responses on certain psychological tests reveal a different story. In one particular type of classic experiment, white participants are asked to quickly categorize words that pop up on a computer screen as either positive (like “happy”) or negative (like “fear”). However, just before each word is displayed, either a black or a white face quickly appears on the screen. What scientists have found time and time again, is that on average, white individuals categorize negative words much faster when they follow black faces, and positive words faster when they follow white faces. What these studies show is that many of us, despite what we believe about ourselves, have split-second negative reactions towards members of certain other races. And unfortunately, these subconscious racist tendencies may affect behavior in the real world, especially when police officers need to make blink-of-an-eye decisions about how to respond to a perceived threat.

Another type of experiment has provided further evidence that white individuals tend to subconsciously perceive black males as threatening.  All individuals, regardless of race, show something that scientists call an “attention bias” for threat. For example, hundreds of studies have shown that humans tend to move their attention more quickly towards threatening aspects of the environment. In something called a “visual search task,” participants are instructed to locate one specific object in a clutter of objects on a computer screen while their eye movements are tracked. The data has shown that people are able to locate threatening objects, like spiders, or angry faces, much faster than they can find non-threatening ones, like ladybugs or happy faces. This makes sense in terms of evolution. Being able to rapidly locate threats in the environment allowed our ancestors to survive in an unpredictable and dangerous natural world. Interestingly, scientists have also found that white individuals have a similar attention bias for black faces, even when those faces have non-threatening expressions. Specifically, white participants tend to orient their attention towards black faces more quickly than same-race faces. These findings clearly show that on average, whites tend to subconsciously perceive blacks as threats, no matter how opposed to stereotypes or racial discrimination they may be.

Although these studies reveal subconscious racist behaviors that may be beyond one’s immediate control, they also offer solutions to the problem of white officers’ tendency to overreact in situations involving black suspects. First of all, all of us, including police officers and other figures of authority, must realize that these racial biases are real and prevalent. If we are aware of our innate predispositions then we can make a conscious effort to regulate our behavior. For instance, if a police officer is in a situation where his life is not being immediately threatened, he should go through the effort of assessing the situation logically before acting to ensure that he is not overreacting or using excessive force. Additionally, perhaps psychological and behavioral measures, such as surveys and visual computer tasks that test for implicit racial biases should be implemented as screening measures for police. If an officer does in fact exhibit these biases, he could be subjected to more in-depth training that can help mitigate these effects. Psychologists also have attention training tasks that can help dissolve cognitive biases, which can be provided to those at risk through computer apps.

Finally, we all must realize that in some situations the use of excessive force by police officers might not be intentional. Although that is by no means an excuse, it may help us to better understand why the outcome occurred, and how we can possibly prevent it from occurring in the future. And if police departments recognize that these implicit racial biases are in-fact driving some of their behavior, it would show the world that they are willing to admit there is a problem that they plan to address and correct.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist (PhD) and creator of the blog Science Is Sexy (scienceissexy.com)

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