Why are police officers more likely to shoot unarmed Black men than men of other races? New research from the American Psychological Association says a contributing factor could be the widespread unconscious perception of Black men as larger and more threatening than White men of the same build.
That unconscious bias carries with it serious life or death consequences for Black men. And it call into question how well police officers are trained to manage their misperceptions about the Black men they encounter.
The study, released on Monday, is titled Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat, which appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Researchers asked 950 people in the United States to determine the height, strength and muscularity of Black and White men of equal height and weight. The respondents tended to believe the Black men were larger than the same size White men.
Lead author John Paul Wilson of Montclair State University said in a statement that the “estimates were consistently biased.”
Wilson added: “Participants also believed that the Black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed.”
Indeed, Wilson said this bias may explain why police officers are disproportionately more likely to fatally shoot unarmed Black men. However, the study said more research in real-world scenarios are needed to draw that conclusion.
This study is one more piece to a problem we’ve know about for a long time. Under former Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. One of its core goals is to reduce bias in policing communities of color. It’s unclear if the Jeff Sessions Justice Department will continue this effort.
Following the rash of high profile police killings of unarmed Black men and boys, police departments around the nation began addressing this issue of unconscious bias. But undoing a lifetime of misperceptions about Black men is no easy task.