America would like to think of itself as a post-racial society. But countless incidents over the last decade have reminded us that America still has a significant problem with race. Many believe that the election of our first African-American president had the unforeseen effect of highlighting racist beliefs and attitudes that persist more than a half-century after the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, many Americans have biases they aren’t even aware of. And these prejudices directly inform how African Americans fare in the U.S. criminal justice system.
A study recently published by the American Psychological Association found that Americans tend to overestimate the height, weight and strength of black men, and also tend to view them as more threatening. The study involved 950 participants who were shown pictures of male faces. The photos showed a mix of black and white men of equal weight and height. But when asked to predict the height and weight based on the pictures, participants consistently overestimated the size of the African-American men (compared to white men of the same weight and height).
The implications of those false assessments are even more troubling. One researcher explained that “participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed.”
It is not just a bias between white and black. In fact, researchers found that the darker a subject’s skin was and the more stereotypically “black” facial features he had, the more likely he was to be perceived as threatening.
If these skewed perceptions exist among the general public, there is every reason to believe that they are at least as prevalent among law enforcement. Such biases would serve as an explanation as to why there have been so many police shootings of unarmed, African-American suspects in recent years.
Until this problem is faced honestly and biases are challenged, entire communities are at risk of being shot by the very professionals whose job it is to protect and serve.