Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Professor Gates and the Criminalization of Black Men in America

Kristin J. Anderson

kristinandersonKristin J. Anderson’s latest post at Psychology Today is about Henry Louis Gates Jr. It parses the psychology of stereotyping when it comes to split-second decisions by police.

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The recent arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us of Alexis de Tocqueville’s prediction nearly two centuries ago that the eventual end of slavery would be the start of a protracted and bloody struggle in America, driven by the engine of racial inequality. During the Jim Crow era, the statutory category of “vagrancy” served much the same function as “disorderly conduct” appears to serve now. And, like vagrancy in its vagueness and discretionary margin for law enforcement, the case of Professor Gates allows police officers to determine when his behavior has become sufficiently “loud and tumultuous” to warrant arrest in his own home.

If racism is understood only in terms of slavery and lynching, then we might live in a post-racial era. But this is not an accurate view of how racism and discrimination work. Racist violence still takes place, but today discrimination more often occurs in seemingly little ways, in treatment that, if viewed as isolated events seem to not amount to much… Psychological research lends support for these individual experiences of African Americans.

A common stereotype about African Americans, particularly African American men, is that they are angry, hostile, and aggressive. Research on facial perception suggests that white Americans over-interpret anger in black men. One study found that white Americans interpreted anger in the faces of African American men whose faces were actually neutral. This did not happen when white men or African American women’s faces were viewed. How do these biases in the interpretation of black men come about? Most white Americans have relatively little actual contact with African Americans. We live in segregated communities and workplaces…

Stereotypes and racial profiling can have deadly results, such as the numerous police shootings of unarmed and innocent black men. … We cannot speculate about any individual officer’s motivations but simulation studies give us a glimpse into the patterns of the quick decisions people make based on race. In video simulation studies people fire at an armed target more quickly if he is African American than if he is white, and they decide not to shoot an unarmed white target more quickly than an unarmed African American target. People are overwhelmed by the cognitive link between violence and black men. Thus, race (or, ideas about race) interferes with the ability of respondents to be accurate. In these studies African Americans are just as likely as whites to “overshoot” the black unarmed suspect. This fact should not be surprising because both African Americans and whites are, for the most part, subjected to the same messages linking black men and crime.

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About The Author

Kristin J. Anderson

Kristin Anderson is author of Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice (2010). She is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston, Downtown and she blo...

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