Whether for counterterrorism measures, street level crime, or immigration, racial profiling of minorities occurs frequently.
Those of you who follow this blog know that I’ve been presenting philosophical puzzles these past few months as a way of taking people’s minds off the Coronavirus pandemic. I plan to continue that next month. But together with Laura Maguire, who edits this blog, I decided that I couldn’t just write a blog right now that ignores recent events in the US: namely, the brutal murder of George Floyd at the knee of Derek Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer, along with the subsequent and ongoing protests around the country.
Floyd was Black, and Chauvin is White. So this killing was all too reminiscent of many other events that have happened where a White police officer kills an unarmed Black person. And we are now undergoing a national reckoning on the wider role of police in today’s society, as well as on how to combat the racism that pervades so many ranks.
So this blog is about the psychological mechanics of one kind of racism, which I’ll call naïve racism. There are a great many varieties of racism. But it will be useful to focus on just one type for now. I use the term “naïve,” because in this type the person typically has no idea that their minds are operating in a racist fashion. (Note: this is not the same thing as implicit bias, though it can co-occur with it and help shape it.)
Let’s start with a basic example. Suppose someone steps on your toe—apparently deliberately. Which of the following do you conclude?
This is a mean person.
This person did a mean thing.
Now suppose someone holds the door for you. Which of the following do you conclude?
This is a nice person.
This person did a nice thing.
Notice that b. and d. particularize the episodes. Whereas a. and c. generalize.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with generalizing per se. Sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes it isn’t. We have to recognize patterns to get by in the world, and we wouldn’t be able to plan for the future without generalizing on things that have happened in the past. So presumably enough toe stepping or door opening should lead to a generalization. But how much is enough? What these examples show is that there is a fair bit of leeway to how we might be inclined to answer that.
And that leeway is an open door—psychologically speaking—for various biases to creep in without people even realizing it, including racial biases.
What a number of experiments in social psychology have shown, among other things, is that whether people generalize or particularize about another person’s behavior depends in part on whether that person is in their in-group or a member of an out-group (see the introduction to this piece for useful references). One important pattern is this (simplifying details): people gravitate to generalizing on a good behavior for members of their in-group, while they particularize the bad behaviors of in-group members; but they do the exact opposite for out-group members—particularizing the good behaviors and generalizing the bad behaviors.
This finding holds true for more than just racial in-groups and out-groups, but it certainly holds true for them as well. So if you’re White, for example, another White person’s stepping on your toe is more likely to get b. (one mean thing). But a Black person’s stepping on your toe is more likely to get a. (mean in general). Furthermore, you probably didn’t realize until now that your mind works this way. Most people don’t.
That example is fairly innocuous. But multiply it hundreds of millions of times over in many different contexts, keeping in mind that due to historical inequality and to having majority status, White people in the US hold most positions of power. A White third grader misspells a word, and in the eyes of the teacher, he just made a mistake; a Black third grader misspells the same word, and the teacher concludes he’s bad at spelling. A White teenager breaks a school rule, and she made a mistake in the eyes of the principal; a Black teenager breaks the same rule, and she has “behavioral issues.” And so on up through all levels of society.
What is so vicious about this process is that the person who forms the racially biased judgments seems to themselves simply to be making a judgment based on evidence. After all, the boy did misspell a word; the girl did break a rule. And hence the person who comes to form the biased judgments and subsequent decisions thinks of themselves as thinking and acting rationally rather than racially. Add to this the parallel bias that people are more likely also to judge entire out-groups by their least well-behaved exemplars—again without realizing the distortion in their induction base—and it becomes less and less surprising that people make racially prejudiced judgments while thinking they’re just being rational: after all, the (few) examples they focus on support their case.
So what can we do to combat this?
Probably start with yourself. In short, don’t be naïve. A little bit longer: question the negative judgments you make about people of other races, when you make them. Do you really have more than a smidge of evidence? Furthermore, if you are in a position of authority, take some time to examine your handling of similar cases that have arisen for people of different races. Are you really evenhanded? You’ll probably be surprised.
After that, try sharing this blog with your friends, most importantly your White friends—especially if they happen to be police officers.