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How racist stereotypes make police bias almost impossible to fight

The six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death.
The six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death.
Baltimore Police Department

With less than one second to make a life-or-death decision, Americans are more likely to mistakenly shoot a black man than a white one.

To people who have been following the news, that could seem obvious. But it's more than just a reasonable conclusion to draw from the recent law enforcement encounters that led to the deaths of black boys and men who were doing nothing wrong (like 12-year-old Tamir Rice and Walmart shopperJohn Crawford, whose toy guns officers mistook for real ones before fatally shooting them): it's science.

An episode of the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole documentary series, hosted by Morgan Freeman, explained the research on this topic. Even more disturbing than the racial discrepancies themselves were the additional findings of one psychologist featured in the episode who studies them: that this racialized shooter bias is carried out by black people just as often as by white people. And when it comes to police officers, there's no indication that the cultural stereotypes that fuel these mistakes can be eliminated by training.

The research: Black men are more likely to be shot by mistake

Joshua Correll, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is one of the experts featured on the Through the Wormhole episode on the science of racial bias.

He studies the way people react to members of racial and ethnic groups, with a special focus on police shootings of black men.

He says this research was originally inspired by the circumstances surrounding the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was killed by police officers in 1999 after he reached for his wallet and one of the officers shouted, "Gun, he's got a gun!" and fired 41 rounds at him.

"How can we determine whether race was actually what drove the officers to shoot?" Correll asked himself. He's not the only one who has wondered this. When it comes to criminal justice in America, it's pretty much the question of the year: Variations of this query — would they have treated him the same had he been white? — have dominated national debates about the circumstances of the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

To answer it with actual data, Correll did an experiment: he set up a simulation in which subjects were provided with live ammunition and were confronted with a potentially dangerous person. They had to decide whether to shoot when presented, for just one second, with an image of either a white or black man who was holding up either a gun or a cellphone.

Through the Wormhole

A scene from one of Correll's simulations, from Through the Wormhole.

Correll recorded how long it took his thousands of research subjects to make their decisions, and whether they "killed" innocent men holding only cellphones.

"What we want to look at is, in that situation where people have to respond quickly, do they use race to inform their decisions," he explained in the episode.

The answer: absolutely.

"People don't make a lot of mistakes," he said, "but when we look at those mistakes we see racial bias in the errors. They're faster to shoot the unarmed target if he's black rather than white. When the target's got a cellphone, they're much more likely to make that decision, to shoot an innocent target when he's black, rather than white."

On average, 30 to 40 percent of the thousands of subjects he tested were more likely to mistake a black man's phone for a gun and to shoot to kill him than they were to make the same mistake with a white man.

Black shooters show the same bias. That's how deep cultural stereotypes run.

In a finding that complicates how we understand racial bias by law enforcement officers, Correll found that black subjects were just as likely to shoot a black man as their white counterparts were.

It's also, in part, an answer to observers who questioned whether an analysis of racial bias could possibly apply in Freddie Gray's death, given that three of his six arresting officers appeared to be black.

The six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death

The six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death. (Baltimore Police Department)

Their identities don't mean race didn't play a role in Gray's death. Instead (although of course this doesn't appear to involve a mistake of the type that Correll studied), they could also be interpreted to confirm that cultural stereotypes run so deep that they impact black people, too.

Correll explained, "We think this represents an awareness of a cultural stereotype — not that our participants believe necessarily that black men are more dangerous than white men, but by virtue of movies they watch, music they listen to, etc., they're getting the idea that black male goes with violent. The group and the idea are linked together in their minds whether they agree with that stereotype or not."

There's no indication that training police can fix this

When Correll performed his experiment specifically on law enforcement officers, he found that expert training significantly reduced their fatal mistakes overall, but no matter what training they had, most participants were quicker to shoot at a black target.

Correll said that as far as he knows, the research on whether training can reduce racial bias — and its resulting deadly mistakes — among law enforcement officers hasn't been done.

"I think it should be done, but no one has done it yet," he wrote in an email to Vox. "We certainly have evidence from the lab that these biases are flexible. First, when we expose people to information that challenges the stereotypes, bias can diminish. Second, when people make a concerted effort to avoid biased thinking over a long period of time, bias can diminish." But, he warned, "That same flexibility means that biases can re-emerge. In some of our research, we find we can train people and effectively eliminate bias in the short term, but when they come to the lab again a few days later, their biases are back."

He said the stubborn nature of racial bias makes sense, and that he's not hopeful about erasing it. "It's hard for me to imagine any training that will completely eliminate biased thinking if the world we live in systematically reinforces the idea that the Black men are criminals," he explained. "If we are bombarded with that association, our brains will probably pick it up. So I do think that cultural stereotypes present a pretty serious challenge."

Through the Wormhole airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on the Science Channel.

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