A Few Bad Apples or Systemic Racism?

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In the aftermath of now-iconic images of senseless police cruelty, public opinion has taken a left turn. In a Monmouth University poll, the number of Americans agreeing that police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black person increased from 34 percent in 2016 to 57 percent today. People responding to a CBS News survey concurred, with 57 percent now perceiving that police in most communities “treat Whites better than Blacks.”

But we err, says Attorney General William Barr. “There are instances of bad cops,” he grants. Despite those supposed few bad apples, he disputes the idea “that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.” He has many kindred spirits, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Chad Wolf, and Wall Street Journal commentator Heather Mac Donald all arguing that systemic police racism is a myth.

Are they right? Biased by the availability heuristic—the compelling power of a readily available image—have our emotions been hijacked by unforgettable but unrepresentative images of police cruelty?

Alas, the data suggest that America’s tragic history of racism survives, and not just within police departments:

  • Police killings. From 2012 through 2018, Black men’s mortality risk from police killings has been, relative to their population size, triple that of White men—a difference that has continued through the past year.
  • Police physical force. In Minneapolis, the 20 percent of the population that is Black has reportedly been the recipient of nearly 60 percent of police use of physical force. For broader data see here.
  • Traffic stops. Studies (here, here, here, here, and here, among many more) have found Black drivers more likely to be stopped, searched, and subjected to physical force.
  • Perceived discrimination. Black Americans, Pew Research reports, “are about five times as likely as Whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity (44% vs. 9%).” Pew also reports that “Nearly two-thirds of Black adults (65%) say they’ve been in situations where people acted as if they were suspicious of them because of their race or ethnicity, while only a quarter of White adults [and a third of Asian and Hispanic adults] say that’s happened to them.” Perceived unfairness may be somewhat over reported: People who think they look different (for example, when wrongly believing they’ve been given a disfiguring theatrical facial scar) misperceive others as treating them differently. But there is more than a grain of truth to these perceptions—race-influenced policing is reality.
  • Everyday discrimination. In experiments (here, here, and here), people seeking employment interviews, Airbnb reservations, and Uber and Lyft pickups have received better treatment when applying with a name like John rather than Jamal, or Emily rather than Lakisha.
  • Automatic perceptions and reactions. Modern prejudice is also substantially implicit. In experiments, participants have more often perceived an ambiguous object, when held by a Black person, as a gun rather than a bottle. And, when reacting in simulations, untrained participants also shot more quickly.

One other finding for us to ponder: Two experiments (here and here) show that most folks predict they would be upset and would intervene if witnessing a sexist or racist slur, yet respond with indifference when actually experiencing such. In one study, only 5 percent expected they’d say nothing. But faced with the actual situation, 55 percent stayed silent. Good intentions exceed courageous actions. T. S. Elliot understood: “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.”

So, is there any hope for progress? Are efforts to create a better future pointless?

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quoting of a nineteenth century abolitionist was optimistic: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Today, we can take heart that twentieth century civil rights efforts bent the arc. Acceptance of racial integration, interracial marriage, and Black presidential candidates—all once supported by few—are now supported by 9 in 10 people or more. “Decades ago,” notes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “unarmed Black people getting beaten or killed by the police barely merited the local news. But now it’s national news–even breaking news–no matter where in the country it occurs.” Even implicit racism has been declining.

These historic advances are, however, offset—since 2016—by some regression. By modeling divisiveness, the President’s bullying and racist tweets and retweets have contributed to a more polarized and toxic culture. For example, hate groups are more numerous. And the FBI reports that hate crimes increased from 5,850 in 2015 to 7,120 in 2018.

The bottom line: In the last six decades, overt racism, violent crime, sexism, homophobia, and other ills have substantially declined. So there is reason for hope. Our efforts can bear fruit. Yet prejudice persists. Systemic racism endures. To reach full justice, the moral arc needs to bend much further. If 2020 is to be an inflection point, there is work to be done on the barrel that can make apples go bad.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).