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Even walking is more dangerous if you're black

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

A new study suggests the simple act of walking can be more dangerous depending on your skin color.

The study, from researchers at Portland State University and the University of Arizona, found that drivers are much more likely to yield to white pedestrians than black pedestrians. Using controlled field experiments in Portland, Oregon, with three black men and three white men, researchers found that black participants were twice as likely as their white counterparts to be passed by two or more cars, and black participants experienced 32 percent longer wait times before drivers yielded.

The results suggest that black people are more likely to be ignored or neglected by drivers, which could lead to a greater risk of getting hit by a car. The researchers note that from 2000 to 2010, the pedestrian fatality rates in the US were 3.93 per 100,000 for black men — more than twice the rate for white men (1.78), even after controlling for increased exposure to cars in urban areas, socioeconomic status, and alcohol use.

The study didn't verify whether overt or subconscious racial prejudices were behind drivers' behaviors. But researchers said that based on all the other driver behaviors motivated by implicit attitudes, it's likely implicit bias played a big role. And there's a growing body of evidence that shows implicit biases fundamentally alter people's interactions with others based on race.

The public and police hold subconscious biases against black people

As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.

"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."

Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work, as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

Dehumanization and subconscious racial biases are worrying because they may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

It's this type of racial bias that has been at the center of debates over racial disparities in police use of force over the past year. When cops used force on Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, the question for many critics of police was how subconscious biases factored into the deadly encounters. For instance, Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown, described the black 18-year-old to a grand jury as a demon-like, dead-eyed giant who charged at him through a hail of gunfire — a callback to old racist tropes of "giant negroes" attacking police and innocent people.

All of these biases add up to not just small consequences — such as longer waiting periods on pedestrian crosswalks and other microaggressions — but also potentially cause more serious results — including car crashes and police officers' excessive use of force. So while a study examining the racial bias of drivers may seem pretty small in the grand scheme of things, it signals a much broader problem with how society generally views and treats minority groups.

Thanks to the Washington Post's Fredrick Kunkle for first surfacing the paper.