New studies reveal deep, deadly racial biases


Republicans declaim endlessly their claim that Americans live in a “post-racial” society, where folks are judged solely by their abilities and not by the color of their skin.

Hence, no need for programs designed to teach tolerance, or to attempt to repair the damages wrought by centuries of bigotry, poor schools, and dangerous environments.

Of course anyone who listened to the virulent bigotry aroused by the Trump campaign knows the Republican rap is, in Fareed Zakaria’s notable phrasing, bullshit.

For those with any lingering doubts, considered the results of four new academic surveys, revealing that, among other things:

  • innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people
  • police view young black criminal suspects as both older and more likely to be guilty of serious offenses than they do white or Latino suspects in identical circumstances
  • people in general judge black men as larger, stronger and more muscular than white men, even when they’re exactly the same size
  • motorists approaching mid-block crosswalks are less likely to yield for black pedestrians than white pedestrians

With liberty and justice for some. . .

The power of the state is no more evident than a confrontation with a person with a badge and a gun, followed by a run through the meat-grinder that is the criminal justice system for those unable to afford expensive lawyers and costly investigators.

And those unfortunates are all too often people of color.

One way to judge the relative impartiality of a system professing to administer itself without bias is in those found guilty and sentenced to prison or death who were subsequently exonerated and freed.

From Michigan State University:

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and spend longer in prison before exoneration, according to a report recently released that’s co-edited by a Michigan State University College of Law professor.

“The vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered,” said MSU Law’s Barbara O’Brien, the author of a companion report, “Exonerations in 2016,” [open access] and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “There’s no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly—that’s beyond dispute. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem. But will we do enough to actually address it? That remains to be seen.”

“Exonerations in 2016” found a record number of exonerations for the third straight year and a record number of cases with official misconduct.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. The registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 – cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The 2016 data show convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were more likely to involve misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. On average, black murder exonerees waited three years longer in prison before release than whites.

Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African-Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

In addition, the report, officially titled, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” [open access], found innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.

Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants. The overwhelming majority were African-American defendants framed for drug crimes that never occurred.

“Of the many costs the war on drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, there were more exonerations than in any previous year in which government officials committed misconduct; the convictions were based on guilty pleas; no crime actually occurred; and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration.

Police attribute more guilt, age to black youth suspects

One reason for those high exoneration rates for people of color can be found in a new study of how police attribute guilt and age when confronting black youth in suspicious circumstances.

The findings represent yet one more piece of evidence of deep flaws in our criminal justice system.

From the American Psychological Association:

Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. The study [open access] was published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias — prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as “It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.” To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes. Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks — conscious or not — was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.

A: Participants’ average age estimation accuracy for child suspects of different race. B: Participants’ average culpability rating for child suspects of different races. Error bars represent standard errors. From the study [open access].
Click on the image to enlarge.

The authors noted that police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of blacks could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children. “We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.

The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.

The students were also shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, black or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. The students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found. Researchers used questionnaires to assess the participants’ prejudice and dehumanization of blacks. They found that participants who implicitly associated blacks with apes thought the black children were older and less innocent.

In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

The mind creates that ‘menacing big black man’

There’s something about the stereotype of the menacing big black man in films and other aspects of popular culture that you could almost make an acronymn of it, just as porn sites have made BBC descriptive another attribution about black males and size.

But it is in intersection of the menacing big black man stereotype and people with guns that makes a myth downright deadly  especially when most of us have an implicit bias to see black men as both larger more menacing than they would a white man in the same situation.

The findings have deep and troubling implications.

Consider, then, this new research from the American Psychological Association:

People have a tendency to perceive black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men, according to research just published by the American Psychological Association.

“Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot,” said lead author John Paul Wilson, PhD, of Montclair State University. “Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.”

Wilson and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving more than 950 online participants (all from the United States) in which people were shown a series of color photographs of white and black male faces of individuals who were all of equal height and weight. The participants were then asked to estimate the height, weight, strength and overall muscularity of the men pictured.

“We found that these estimates were consistently biased. Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size,” said Wilson. “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.”

Even black participants displayed this bias, according to Wilson, but while they judged young black men to be more muscular than the young white men, they did not judge them to be more harmful or deserving of force.

In one experiment, where participants were shown identically sized bodies labeled either black or white, they were more likely to describe the black bodies as taller and heavier. In another, the size bias was most pronounced for the men whose facial features looked the most stereotypically black.

“We found that men with darker skin and more stereotypically black facial features tended to be most likely to elicit biased size perceptions, even though they were actually no larger than men with lighter skin and less stereotypical facial features,” said Wilson. “Thus, the size bias doesn’t rely just on a white versus black group boundary. It also varies within black men according to their facial features.”

Black men are disproportionately more likely to be killed in interactions with police, even when unarmed, according to Wilson, and this research suggests that misperceptions of black men’s size might be one contributor to police decisions to shoot. But, he cautioned, the studies do not simulate real-world threat scenarios like those facing actual police officers. More research should be conducted on whether and how this bias operates in potentially lethal situations and other real-world police interactions, Wilson said.

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Previous research, also published in this journal, suggested that people view black boys as older and less innocent than similarly aged white boys, and that training and experience can help police overcome racial bias in shoot-don’t shoot scenarios.

Black pedestrians at higher risk in crosswalks

Finally, another study reveals that walking while black can be hazardous to your health.

Once again, inherent bias can be lethal, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

From the University of Nevada, Las Vegas:

UNLV study has found that motorists approaching mid-block crosswalks are less likely to yield for black pedestrians than white pedestrians. And, the pedestrian bias is apparently even worse in high-income than low-income neighborhoods.

Researchers say the findings — which replicate the results of a similar study [$27.95 to access] out of Portland — may help explain why people of color are disproportionately affected by fatal pedestrian crashes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, pedestrian fatality rates between 2001 and 2010 for black and Latino men were more than twice the rate for white men, and American Indian/Alaska Native men had a rate more than four times higher.

For three consecutive years, the number of pedestrian deaths in Nevada have increased. In March 2016, the state declared an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities with numbers up 46 percent from the same time period in 2015. In 2016, Smart Growth America ranked Nevada as the 12th most dangerous state to be a pedestrian, and Las Vegas as the 21st most dangerous metropolitan area (out of 52).

Methodology and Results

Researchers had two female students, one white and one black, of similar height and build and wearing jeans and neutral-colored shirts take turns crossing the street alone in a high- and a low-income neighborhood on opposite ends of the valley about 130 times (roughly 30 times each per neighborhood). The observations took place between 10 a.m. and noon, peak daylight hours, on a Saturday and Sunday.

Scientists examined two driving behaviors:

  • How many cars passed in the nearest lane before yielding while the pedestrian waited near the crosswalk on the curb, attempting to make eye contact with the driver and waiting for the car in the nearest lane to begin braking
  • How many motorists drove through the crosswalk while the pedestrian was actually in the process of crossing their half of the road

The study found that, at the high-income crosswalk, drivers were slightly less likely to yield for the white pedestrian waiting curbside (47 percent of the time) than the black pedestrian (55 percent of the time).

However, it was a different story once the pedestrians stepped into the road. At that same high-income crosswalk, researchers found, significantly more motorists drove through the crosswalk while the black pedestrian was already in the road compared to the white pedestrian — a 7:1 ratio. Percentage-wise, that breaks down to one or more cars driving through the intersection 20.6 percent of the time while the black pedestrian was actively crossing compared to 2.9 percent of the time while the white pedestrian was doing so.

In the low-income neighborhood, there was no significant difference in driver yield rates for pedestrians either on the curb or in the road.

What This Means

UNLV researchers wondered whether the speed limit (45 mph in the high-income neighborhood vs. 35 in the low-income area), difference in road design, or drivers being unaccustomed to seeing pedestrians contributed to poor yielding behaviors overall at the high-income intersection.

Nonetheless, they called for implementation of policies, such as lower speed limits, or pedestrian safety enhancements, such as push-button activated stop lights, to make roadway use equitable for all users.

Courtney Coughenour, the UNLV Community Health Sciences professor who led the study, said other methods of increasing safety might include police enforcement of proper crosswalk rules or driver and pedestrian education campaigns designed to foster understanding that motorists by law must yield to pedestrians and that “no one type of user owns the road; cars, pedestrians and cyclists have the same right to those shared spaces and deserve respect.”

Overall, regardless of race, motorists yielded to a pedestrian waiting curbside only 51.5 percent of the time in the high-income neighborhood and 70.7 percent of the time at the low-income crosswalk, according to the UNLV research.

That’s troubling, given that the Vision Zero Initiative, a multi-national road safety project aimed at creating traffic systems with no fatalities or serious injuries, reports that pedestrians struck at 30 mph do not survive 50 percent of the time and those struck at 40 mph die 90 percent of the time.

“We’ve been very effective at designing our roadways to move cars. Unfortunately, this is sometimes done at the expense of pedestrian safety,” Coughenour said.

She said the study and similar findings from Portland show that pedestrians of color experience an increased risk on the roadway, which may be one factor that contributes to the higher rates of pedestrian crashes.

“From an urban design perspective, it is important to take this into consideration when designing pedestrian facilities, especially in communities of color,” Coughenour said. “Given the design of this study, we are unable to determine the nature of driver bias. However, often times the decision of whether or not to yield to a pedestrian is made very quickly, so it is likely that any bias drivers may have is unconscious. It’s important to understand and discuss findings of this nature, as dialogue is a critical first step in beginning to address such biases.”

UNLV students are continuing research on this topic, examining various types of bias and working to understand what might be done in the short term to enhance pedestrian safety.

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