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Racial Bias Runs Deep

Students quick to match weapons with black faces

FRIDAY, June 1, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In findings that researchers say highlight entrenched racism in this country, a new study shows people are more likely to link a black face to a weapon than to a tool.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis decided to examine the issue after several police shootings of unarmed blacks, including one in which four white New York City police officers killed an unarmed black immigrant named Amidou Diallo in a barrage of 41 bullets in 1999.

"I thought this was one area that social psychology should have something to say," says study author Keith Payne, a doctoral student specializing in stereotyping. The study will appear in the August 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Payne and his colleagues measured the racial bias of 31 college students, none of whom were black, with two questionnaires, then gave them two tests.

First, they were seated before a computer while pictures of black faces and white faces flashed, followed by pictures of either guns or hand tools. The students were told to focus on the second picture and to identify it by pushing one of two buttons. They were allowed as much time as they needed to decide what the second picture was.

When black faces were flashed first, the students more quickly identified the second picture as a gun than as a tool; the reverse was true when white faces were flashed first.

The second test replicated the first, but each student had only half a second to decide what the second picture was. The trends were identical, with the students linking guns to black faces more quickly, but the error rate increased.

Payne says the results point out how dangerous racial bias can be in split-second situations where weapons may be involved.

"Within the study, having a second or two to think helped reduce bias. In an uncertain situation, forced to respond quickly, their stereotypes determined their response. One of the main points was to demonstrate that the presence of racial cues can determine people's identification of these things," Payne says.

The study "shows the sort of unintentionality of bias that most people have," says John Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Colgate University who has studied racism extensively. "These kinds of biases are normal. They're embedded in the social consciousness. The fact is the biases are there. They affect what we do and what we see. … [The study] helps us realize how deep the problem is. We're all susceptible. It does have very serious implications that should give us reason to worry and reason to look inside ourselves."

The problem with bias is it occurs in ways we don't detect, Dovidio says.

"Things become automatic because they become habitual. You can't just wish this away. You can't get rid of it by saying, 'I'm going to stop it.' You have to create new and better habits," Dovidio says.

One way would be to put children in multicultural environments at younger ages, Dovidio says.

Payne says, "For the average person, [the study] should just serve as a reminder that sometimes biases are at work even when they don't know they're at work. Just pause, think. The quick responses are most likely those with bias."

What To Do

The American Civil Liberties Union has information on racial issues.

This CNN story describes racial bias in the U.S. justice system.

And this previous HealthDay story explores how racial bias may be reflected in brain activity.

SOURCES: Interviews with Keith Payne, doctoral student, social psychology, Washington University, St. Louis; John Dovidio, professor, psychology, Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.; August 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
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