Teaching non-Black people about systemic racial inequalities in the United States leads them to perceive more racism when a police officer shoots a Black man, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The study also provides evidence that socially conservative individuals tend to perceive less racism when a Black man is shot.
“Physical violence between the police and Black people has been a politically charged topic for a very long time,” said study authors Erin Cooley of Colgate University, Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi of the University of Virginia, and D’Jonita Cottrell of The Steppingstone Foundation.
“While some align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement; others respond by announcing that All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. We are interested in this topic to better understand the role of political ideology and White privilege lessons in shaping people’s responses to violent police encounters with Black men.”
“In particular, we are interested in whether these factors shape perceptions that an officer is choosing to use violence due to racism. Likewise, we are interested in the influence of ideology and White privilege lessons on attributions of blame in these violent altercations — evaluations central to the legal outcomes of these events.”
In the study, 501 non-Black participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were randomly assigned to either read a brief excerpt about White privilege or (in the control condition) a brief excerpt about the advantages of developing routines in daily life. The White privilege excerpt discussed the history of White people having power over other racial groups, and listed privileges such as “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”
The participants then read a purportedly real court case that involved a police officer responding to a robbery and shooting the suspect after he reached inside a grocery bag. In some cases, the suspect was described as a 26-year-old White male while in other cases the suspect was described as Black.
The researchers found that socially liberal participants were more likely than socially conservative participants to believe that racism played a role in the shooting when the suspect was Black. Those who read about White privilege were also more likely to believe that racism played a role in the shooting when the suspect was Black, regardless of political ideology.
These findings were replicated in a second study with another 485 non-Black people.
“Liberals are more likely to perceive racism in violent encounters between police and Black men than are conservatives. However, White privilege lessons — which highlight the systemic nature of racism — increase both liberals’ and conservatives’ perceptions of racism when police harm Black men. Furthermore, these perceptions of racism are associated with blaming the Black suspect less, and the officer more, for these altercations,” the researchers told PsyPost.
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“Although we had a range of political ideologies in our samples, our samples tended toward being more liberal than conservative. Future research should explore whether learning about White privilege also increases perceived racism when Black men are harmed by police among people who identify as extremely, rather than moderately, conservative,” the researchers said.
“Likewise, we focused on the effects of ideology and White privilege lessons on perceptions of violence between police and Black men, but more research is needed to understand how learning about White privilege affects evaluations of more subtle forms of bias, such as hiring discrimination or nonverbal behaviors (e.g., crossing the street to avoid a Black person).”
“Finally, we are not sure how White privilege interventions would influence perceived blame and guilt for violent altercations between police and non-Black People of Color (e.g., Asian people), or White people,” the researchers explained.
“Although our data are based on two large samples of non-Black Americans (N = 986), this work should be replicated and extended to understand the implications of White privilege lessons among people of different races and political orientations.”
“More centrally, there is no single intervention to combat systemic racism, and widespread progress will likely require a multifaceted approach to breaking down deeply entrenched systems and policies that perpetuate racial inequality,” Cooley, Brown-Iannuzzi, and Cottrell concluded.