Unconscious Racial Bias Gets Increased Attention in Aftermath of Police Shooting of Unarmed Black Teen


As state and federal authorities investigate the August 9 shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the role of unconscious racial bias in police shootings and throughout society has become a focus of national conversation.

Research conducted during the past 20 years shows that people can believe in racial equality and reject discrimination and nonetheless “harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior,” as Nicholas Kristof reported this week.

Studies have found that doctors prescribe less pain medication for African Americans and Hispanics treated for a broken leg than for white patients with the same injury. School administrators suspend Black students three times more than white students.

Police arrest Black people nearly four times more than whites for marijuana possession, even though both use it at about the same rate. In another study, job seekers with a Black-sounding name had to send out 50 percent more resumes than those with a white-sounding name in order to get a callback.

Researchers using an online shooter video game to measure unconscious bias found that Black and white players acting as police officers shoot more quickly at Black men than white men and are more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed Black man than an unarmed white man. These findings underscore that the presumption of guilt with which young men of color are burdened, the automatic assumption that young Black men are dangerous, is not unique to police officers but infects our entire culture.

The media’s role in perpetuating and disseminating discriminatory stereotypes was criticized this week by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and has been challenged since Michael Brown’s shooting through social media campaigns like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Readers protested a New York Times profile of Michael Brown saying the young man “was no angel” (because he “dabbled in drugs and alcohol,” wrote rap lyrics that were “by turns contemplative and vulgar,” and “got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor”); the Times’ public editor responded by pointing out the story’s writer is Black and called the choice of words a “blunder.”

Supporters of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, have raised nearly $410,000 from about 10,000 donors, some of whom praised Wilson for shooting “a common street thug” and doing “a great job removing an unnecessary thing from the public!”. (The Michael Brown Memorial Fund has raised almost $280,000.)

A host of social science research also illuminates the ways in which we tolerate and sometimes embrace racial disparities in the criminal justice system because of the ways we have internalized racially biased thoughts and opinions. Stanford researchers recently found that people were more supportive of harsh criminal justice policies the more African Americans they believed were in prison. EJI’s race and poverty project is attempting to challenge the persistence of these problems by confronting narratives that perpetuate racial bias and discrimination in American society, particularly in the criminal justice system.