The Ferguson Shooting and the Science of Race and Guns
We have got to change.
On Saturday, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri gunned down unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Eyewitnesses say Brown was killed while trying to run away or surrender, but Ferguson police claim that Brown reached for the officer’s gun. It will be a long time before all the facts are sorted out, but research suggests that such claims may be rooted in something deeper than the need to explain actions after the fact: Race may literally make people see things that are not there, whether it’s a gun or a reach for a gun.
In a 2001 study, participants were shown a picture of a white face or a black face followed immediately by a picture of a weapon or a tool. They were asked to identify the object as quickly as possible. Study participants more often identified weapons correctly after they saw a black face, and more accurately identified tools after seeing an image of a white face. What’s more, “they falsely claimed to see a gun more often when the face was black than when it was white,” the report’s author wrote. He goes on:
Race stereotypes can lead people to claim to see a weapon where there is none. Split-second decisions magnify the bias by limiting people’s ability to control responses. Such a bias could have important consequences for decision making by police officers and other authorities interacting with racial minorities. The bias requires no intentional racial animus, occurring even for those who are actively trying to avoid it.
This study has been repeated by several different groups of scientists with the same results. (When participants are primed with female as opposed to male African-American faces, however, they are less likely to assume the object is a gun.)