Although I found this week’s article on the influence of stereotypic associations on visual processing to be interesting, the results and social consequences of this study did not surprise me one bit. The social consequences of studying the biases we as humans have toward Black male faces is incredibly relevant in the past, present, and future of American society, and I do not think I can stress this point further. I find it amazing that an article written fourteen years ago truly hits home in the headlines of today’s news and in the stories being told in today’s media.
Right in the first paragraph, the authors detail the effects of the stereotypic association of Black Americans with violence and crime on various variables, including “people’s evaluation of ambiguously aggressive behavior, people’s decision to categorize nonweapons as weapons, the speed at which people decide to shoot someone holding a weapon, and the probability that they will shoot at all” (Eberhardt 876). And right away, a million all too common stories pop into my head—neighbors calling the cops on a Black man trying to get into his own house, a Black child being held at gunpoint by authorities of the law for doing something no White child would be faulted for, a Black teenager being shot to death as he is in the midst of taking his hands out of his pockets and putting them up in the air as an act of surrender. And what do we have as a result in the face of all this tragedy? More tragedy. No changes, no consequences, more preventable death. And that is why I am so glad that we were assigned to read this article for class—these kinds of studies can have a real impact on society and how systems of power are led.
From a social psychological perspective, this article aims to prove that some associations between social groups and concepts are bidirectional, that “bidirectional associations function as visual tuning devices—directing people’s eyes, their focus, and their interpretations of the stimuli with which they are confronted” (Eberhardt 877). In the context of our example of Black men and violence, these studies aim to show that just as seeing Black faces can prompt thoughts of crime, thinking of crime can prompt thoughts of Black people. Thus, the “bidirectional” association: the connection between social groups and concepts goes both ways.
The sad truth is there are too many real-life examples to choose from to analyze through a social psychological lens, but the first story that comes to mind is the shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in March of 2018—”Two police officers, 10 minutes, 20 bullets. Another young black man dead, this time in his grandmother’s backyard in California’s capital” (Del). The police showed up in Stephon’s neighborhood looking for a vandal, and fatally shot this young black man in his backyard believing he was carrying a gun. It was a cellphone. Watching police body camera and helicopter footage showing what had happened, I remember being filled with horror at how fast everything had unfolded. By the time the police officers enter the backyard, order Stephon to show his hands, seconds pass before one officer shouts “gun” and they both shoot 5-7 bullets at Stephon. By now it’s been 2 minutes and 50 seconds. They shoot at this unarmed black man 20 times. The New York Times reported that “the officers believed Mr. Clark had a weapon and opened fire ‘fearing for their lives,’ according to a police statement” (Del).
Connecting the paper we read this week with the story of Stephon Clark, I think the various results obtained from these studies really give us an understanding of how something like what happened to Stephon Clark is possible. Study 1 shows that by exposing people to Black male faces, the threshold at which they think they see crime-relevant objects with a compromised view (i.e. guns and knives) is much lower. The results demonstrate that Black faces “triggered a form of racialized seeing that facilitated the processing of crime-relevant objects,” meaning that after exposure to Black faces, it took participants less visibility of an object to detect crime-relevant objects, whereas after exposure to White faces, it took participants more visibility of an object to detect a gun or a knife (Eberhardt 881). Once police officers see a Black face, it takes them less time and less visibility of an object to think they’re seeing a gun or a knife. And these days, it’s clear that police officers easily mistaken a phone for a gun when it comes to a Black male suspect. When it’s nighttime and dark outside, as it was the night of Clark’s death, visibility is undoubtedly hindered and everything is sort of a shade of black, The only similarity I see between a phone and a gun in the dark is the fact that they both appear black and they’re both several inches long. From a social psychological lens, when these police officers saw Stephon Clark and saw that he was a Black male, and saw that he was holding something in his hand, without longer than a few seconds of thought, they were convinced he was carrying a gun. And continuing on with the analysis, it is entirely possible that these police officers processed faster that he was carrying what they believed to be a gun because Stephon had a Black male face than if he were a White male. When looking at a Black male face, a more degraded image can still lead to a classification of a gun when compared to exposure to White male face. And when a human being’s life is at stake, I really think that it is of the utmost importance that every person in America and every police officer across the nation takes it upon themselves to be aware of studies like this and to acquire knowledge like this. I can never know what it would be like to be those officers opening fire “fearing for their lives,” but I can’t shake the feeling that some officers across the nation and over the years have not been and are not acknowledging their mistakes and learning from them. After reading this paper, it seems incredibly important to me that we all acknowledge we might more often than not mistake a phone for a gun when the suspect in question is a Black male AND use that knowledge to act more consciously in the future.
Study 2 shows that exposing people to crime-relevant objects draws them visually more to Black male faces, that just the concept of crime can affect selective attention and cause participants to direct their attention to the faces of Black males 350 ms faster (Eberhardt 883). Just as Blacks are thought of as criminal, crime is thought of as Black. And as mentioned before, these bidirectional associations function as visual tuning devices that literally direct people’s eyes and focus and cause these police officers to think of crime and think Black, and to think Black and think gun. And I think this is incredibly problematic when it comes to police officers and the power they hold. Police officers go through our neighborhoods and communities with crime at the forefront of their mind on a daily basis. When these police officers were dispatched to this Sacramento neighborhood investigating crime, this paper suggests that these police officers are literally directed towards the faces of Black males faster than the faces of White males; these officers were drawn to suspect Stephen Clark faster that night–and within minutes he was riddled with bullet holes. In the past few years we have heard about racial bias training and being aware of racial stereotyping, especially in the context of law enforcement—but what about the equally dangerous implications that leads crime to be associated with Black faces?
The conclusion of this paper discusses how American society condemns the idea of racial stereotyping and associating Black people with crime but isn’t troubled at all by the possibility of crime being linked to Black people. But I think this paper has really shown the importance of this bidirectional association between social groups and concepts, that automatically associating a race-neutral concept like crime with Blackness has already had profound effects on the lives of Black people in America–and none of the guilty perpetrators are facing consequences more than some paid time off. Our society will not change if people constantly deny the biases and stereotypes ingrained in our individual mindsets and in the collective mind of America as a whole. As a person of color, I am tired of people getting unnecessarily defensive about race issues and automatically proclaiming, “I’m not racist” without even stopping to acknowledge the various privileges some of us may have. The truth is, all of us have racism and anti-Black feelings ingrained in us from years of prejudice and discrimination. The real task we face is confronting our stereotypes and automatic associations head on and acknowledging what the abstract of this paper suggests: all the associations between social groups and concepts that we have as humans affect our perception, visual attention, and ultimately our decision making and behavior. We must all take it upon ourselves to be aware, be present, and learn a little social psychology.
Del, Jose A. “20 Shots in Sacramento: Stephon Clark Killing Reignites a Furor.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/us/sacramento-stephon-clark.html.
Eberhardt, J., Goff, P., Purdie, V., Davies, P., & Dovidio, John F. (2004). Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 876-893.