Protests over killings of black people could erode racism, researcher says

Police officers confront protesters in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd.

John Minchillo/AP

Images and reports of people taking to the streets to protest last month’s killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police have sparked conversations among Americans on police use of force to control crowds, the morality of looting, and the destruction of property to vent anger and garner attention for a cause.

Divergent perceptions of the unrest have roots in unconscious biases and knowledge of historical contexts, says James Jones, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Delaware, Newark, who has studied the psychology underlying prejudice and racism. Understanding where those biases come from and how to counteract them will be key to moving toward a more just society after this highly charged moment, he says.

Science spoke to Jones about the protests and perceptions of them. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How have you seen attitudes about prejudice and protests change over the years?

A: I’m 79 years old, and I’ve been at this for a very long time. Having that experience coalesces a lot of things for me. I started writing the first edition of my book Prejudice and Racism in 1970, following the civil rights movement, and at that time we were talking about institutional racism. We saw the problem as state-sanctioned discrimination that undermined the citizenship rights of black people.

No doubt progress has been made, but what I think this event signals to me is that our efforts have been fundamentally incapable of redressing the negative feelings, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs that underlie this systematic, continued bias against black people.

In one sense, I’m hopeful this is finally an inflection point, a watershed like the 1960s were, that fundamentally changes how we approach things. We’ve done a lot of research about how to reduce people’s adherence to stereotypes and help different groups recognize their commonalities. But at the same time, the academic enterprise does not inform policies as much as it should. Maybe this will galvanize policymakers to take the research more seriously.

Q: Do you think these protests might be more effective at changing public perception than similar recent protest movements?

A: Michael Brown’s killing in 2014 sparked Black Lives Matter. What did we get? “All lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” Despite massive evidence, there was broad reluctance to adopt the idea that blacks were being singled out and targeted for assault and incarceration, or that they were blocked from access and opportunity.

I think this moment is different because of a constellation of recent events: Floyd may be victim zero for this wave of unrest, but Amy Cooper [a white woman who called the police on a black man who had asked her to leash her dog] played the “dangerous black male” card because she knew how it worked. In the case of Breonna Taylor, police walked into a black woman’s home and killed her. White men murdered Ahmaud Arbery, a black man out for jog. Not to mention the racial disparities made evident by COVID-19.

That all these things happened literally within days may have created a perfect storm. Now we see. Now we get it. And as more and more people speak out, there is a growing sense of commonality and recognition that this must change.

Q: What drives different perceptions of these protests?

A: Race is embedded in our individual and collective psyches. Research by Jennifer Eberhardt and others has shown that when race is salient in the brain, our perceptions are altered. A subliminal image of a black face makes people more likely to perceive a fuzzy image as a gun. Stereotypes also link physical attributes to internal or behavioral states. Black stereotypes, for instance, are most commonly linked to hostility, criminality, and violence. The response to these stereotypic associations is often fear, particularly of black men.

Those stereotypes and that fear lead some people, and some police, to view black protesters as scary, violent criminals.

Q: Are there any insights from psychology that could inform police de-escalation policies and reduce violence against black protesters?

A: A poignant video is circulating that shows a phalanx of police in Fayetteville, North Carolina, kneeling before a group of protesters. This came about at the direction of the police chief. It signaled the kind of sensitivity and restraint and perspective that is clearly the way to defuse these situations. The bottom line is that when people perceive they are on the same side, antagonism recedes.

My colleague Sam Gaertner has done a great amount of research that shows that when people from different groups are brought together as one group, they perceive each other and interact with one another more positively.

Q: How do you think black and white communities might ultimately respond to these protests?

A: Many whites are having this new awareness that I think may spark a degree of guilt—not only about what happened in the past week, but what has been happening over 4 centuries. There may arise from that a sense of culpability and responsibility and a newfound desire to be accountable. People from a variety of racial backgrounds are speaking out because they feel obligated to do so, an obligation to humanity. That feeling is powerful and could have profound effects. It remains to be seen whether it can be sustained and whether the mighty forces of capitalism and politics can be brought into partnership for change. 

Blacks, on the other hand, are simply tired. There is the sense of, “We been telling y’all, and y’all ain’t hearing it. It is time for you to step up and do something.” Blacks appreciate the fine sentiments that are offered, platitudinous assertions of moral commitments, promissory notes that things will change. Blacks are tired but hopeful that, just maybe, this is the beginning of a real meaningful movement for change.

Q: Does protesting and venting of anger have psychological benefits?

A: These events have created a context in which blacks feel vindicated, and whites feel they have an opportunity to show their humanity. So yes, protesting, vocalizing, and venting can play a psychologically protective role.

Q: What role can scientists play in supporting racial and social justice?

A: At national funding agencies, there is a hierarchy of value of what research is important, and funding for research into racial justice is slippery and grudgingly provided. One of the first things researchers can do is speak up to say, “This work is important, this work is valuable.”

Not only do we need more people of color involved in academe, but we need the questions they are asking to be viewed with greater positivity. When we talk about wanting to diversify the professoriate, we often look at it demographically: We’ve got more black people working in this or that area. And a large percentage of them over the years have been doing the work that anybody else does—it’s great that black people can be mathematicians and solve other kinds of scientific problems. But if you want to have a professoriate that advances our understanding of these momentous issues in our society, it needs to be broader than just having more scientists of color. We must look at the problems we are facing and ask, “How do we get a scientific purchase on that?”

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