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Trayvon Martin and The Science of Race and Violence

April 3, 2012

travyon-martin-researchPhillip A. Goff, one of the leaders of the Foundation's Racial Bias in Policing project, co-wrote an essay for the Huffington Post on the Trayvon Martin incident and how it tragically illuminates the ways we use "race as a proxy for suspicion":

This results from what we refer to as the "cascade of suspicion," the waves of psychological errors that can warp the perceptions of otherwise reasonable individuals. For instance, in a series of psychological studies, Jennifer Eberhardt, colleagues and I found that merely thinking about crime causes individuals to attend to Black male faces and ignore White ones -- a kind of subconscious racial profiling. Similarly, race can also literally shape what we see when looking at Black men, with research by other researchers demonstrating that both civilians and law enforcement are more likely to "see" weapons in the hands of unarmed Black men than unarmed White men.

In my own recent research, these same biases can cause even otherwise gentle individuals to literally perceive Black children as less than human -- mentally associating them with apes and seeing them as far older than they actually are. Importantly, in each of these bodies of research literature, a bigoted heart is not required to "see" suspicion in Black faces. Just as importantly, these psychological processes affect the vast majority of individuals -- and not just "those people" outside of our social circles. That is, many of us with genuinely non-racist hearts still make these mistakes. Our minds are colored by race -- and there is no running from it. Without knowing the science, every Black parent understands what that means for Black boys: making someone else afraid can be deadly.

Read the full essay here. For more information on Goff's work with the Foundation, see our Racial Bias in Policing project page.