By Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD (Executive Director, APA Public Interest Directorate)
Psychological research shows that people often notice differences between themselves and others, but judgments about the differences can be based on biased thinking.
A national uproar.
George Zimmerman’s acquittal of second degree murder charges in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin has unleashed a wave of outrage and angry protests across the country, even prompting President Obama to say, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Zimmerman’s culpability will continue to be debated and likely adjudicated for months to come. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced it will continue its investigation into potential civil rights charges and, reportedly, Martin’s parents are considering a wrongful death lawsuit.
Beyond the specific outcomes of this case, the trial and verdict have generated intense national discussion of larger questions about race, racial profiling and stereotyping, racism and discrimination, perceptions of threat and the value our society places on the lives of African-American males. Among many critical issues that are part of this nationwide debate are the ways in which perceptions of threat are informed and shaped by race, and the impact of stereotypes on the lives and experiences of stereotyped groups. Psychologists have conducted extensive research addressing these systemic concerns.
What qualifies as suspicious?
Many have asked whether Martin would have been deemed suspicious if he had been a white teenager in a hoodie walking home with a bag of candy and an iced tea. We may never get a definitive answer. However, on a larger scale, it is evident that the threshold for what qualifies as suspicious is lower for African-Americans due to stereotyping. Racial profiling by law enforcement explicitly relies on stereotypes to target, search or detain people of color for suspected criminal activity – take the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, for example. Even while still in school, African-American youths are disproportionately disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons than their white peers (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008), not to mention the countless commonplace microaggressions African-Americans experience by those who suspect them of criminality (APA, 2012). APA’s Resolution on Racial/Ethnic Profiling and Other Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Law and Security Enforcement Activities has documented how biases based on race/ethnicity can operate at an unconscious level and how stereotypes can affect who appears “out of place” and who is stopped by law enforcement.
Stand your ground.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law relies on a person’s reasonable belief that he or she is in imminent peril of death or great bodily harm. The statute’s ambiguity in its use of “reasonable” is problematic. This places the onus on the jury to try to ascertain the reasonableness of a defendant’s beliefs based on subjective standards, which can be influenced by conscious and unconscious prejudices. Recent data show that Floridian defendants claiming stand your ground are more likely to prevail if the victim is black – 73 percent face no penalty compared to 59 percent if the victim is white.
Although APA does not take a position with regard to stand your ground or similar laws, psychological research suggests that bias – which can operate below the level of awareness – affects these kinds of judgments. As the APA report Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity states: “Research has shown that noticing differences occurs automatically. However, while noticing differences might not be prejudiced, noticing differences is often automatically associated with judgments about those differences. Those judgments are often negatively biased and [have] led to discriminatory behavior” (APA 2012, p. 5).
Systemic issues at work.
We have not yet realized the dreams of a truly equal nation. Our nation’s ugly legacy of slavery and genocide perpetuates entrenched social inequities. Dual Pathways to a Better America points out the ways racism and other forms of prejudice harm our society – “discrimination, stereotyping, and bias generate exclusion and marginalization for certain groups and wrap a blanket of inclusion, security, and opportunity around others” (APA, 2012, p. 1).
Racism and discrimination do not have to be overt to be damaging. Microaggressions – everyday, seemingly minor verbal, nonverbal or environmental slights delivered with or without intent – can harm the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and contribute to inequities in health care, education and employment (Sue, 2010). Also, Dual Pathways to a Better America indicates “perceiving that one has been discriminated against is detrimental to both mental and physical health” (p. 5).
A time for honest dialogue.
George Zimmerman’s acquittal has reignited a national debate and it is important that this dialogue continue. The Dual Pathways to a Better America report discusses how codes of silence, politeness and constraint on the topic of race hinder honest and meaningful dialogue. Psychologists, with their understanding of human behavior, can contribute to this discussion. Ultimately, honest dialogues on race can lead to increased group understanding and improved group relations.
As Obama said last week, Americans must do some soul searching. “Ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?” he said. “That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments.
What steps do you think Americans should take to talk openly and honestly about racism and prejudice?
What do you think we as individuals, psychologists, and the nation as a whole need to do to achieve true equality?
Among the many thoughtful comments we have received, both to the article in APA Access and the post on www.psychologybenefits.org, are questions about whether APA “thinks” race or bias played a role in the verdict in the Martin/Zimmerman case. First, the goal of our article was to strongly encourage an honest dialogue about issues of race and discrimination, and we want to thank the individuals who raised these particular questions, as well as all the individuals currently commenting at the blog. We also welcome the chance to clarify this very important point – APA does not take a position on the verdict, and this article is not intended to comment directly on the outcome of this case. However, what this case and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law have done is generate new discussion nationally about race, bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. On these issues, psychology has extensive research conducted over many decades. A critical role of APA is to make available cumulative research on issues that matter. We hope this article and the comments (all the comments) we are receiving will contribute to the goal of an honest and constructive conversation about an issue of great importance. With that as our goal, we look forward to the continuing discussion.
American Psychological Association. (2001). APA resolution on racial/ethnic profiling and other racial/ethnic disparities in law and security enforcement activities. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/racial-profiling.aspx
American Psychological Association. (2012). Dual pathways to a better America: Preventing discrimination and promoting diversity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/promoting-diversity.aspx?item=2
American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63(9), 852-862. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.9.852
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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