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Black parents describe “The Talk” they give to their children about police

It’s known as "The Talk" — a discussion left almost exclusively to black parents and family members about police.

"It’s maddening," one black mother said. "I get so frustrated and angry about having to prepare my kids for something that they’re not responsible for."

"The Talk" was the topic of a New York Times video from 2015, explaining how black parents have to prepare their sons for police encounters — out of fear, mainly, that such interactions can go horribly wrong, ending with their son dead.

These are the types of fears that have existed in black communities for generations, but they’ve recently received far more mainstream attention in the aftermath of high-profile police killings since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

"These are conversations that people of other races do not have to have with their children," one black woman said.

"It doesn’t mean that every police officer is inherently a bad person," one black man said, "but what it does mean is that the police force — that institution — does not look out for your best interest."

As one mother put it, "He is going to turn into a large, scary black man. And that’s not who he is, but that’s how he will be perceived."

Unfortunately, she’s right: Study after study show black men are frequently perceived as larger, scarier, and more prone to criminality than people of other races. For black parents, that means a typical police stop turning into a violent encounter is a very real, terrifying possibility.

Most people are at least a little racist, even if they don't know it

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

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 with a history 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.

Another study found people tend to associate what the authors call "black-sounding names," like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do "white-sounding names," like Connor and Garrett.

"I've never been so disgusted by my own data," Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. "The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name."

These biases can seriously impact people's lives

As one can imagine, subconscious racial biases can have real effects on people's lives — such as their job prospects. In one study, researchers sent out almost entirely identical résumés — except some had stereotypically white names, while others had stereotypically black names. The white names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for interviews.

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

These biases also may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that officers shoot black suspects more quickly 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."

Knowing about implicit bias and its consequences is important, researchers say, not just to prove how terrible the world is but because awareness is one of the ways to combat such biases. Police departments have, for example, taken steps to train their police officers to resist their biases — a potentially important reform to reducing the racial disparities in police stops and police shootings so feared by black parents.


Watch: Why recording the police is so important

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