The First Step In Not Being An Ostrich? Stop Dehumanizing Black Children (#Ferguson)

The following is a press release by the American Psychological Association from February:

Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. The study was published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias—prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as “It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.” To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes. Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock, or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks—conscious or not—was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.

The authors noted that police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of black could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children. “We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial difference was a link to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.

The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. Universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9-years-old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.

The students were also shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, black, or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. The students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found. Researchers used questionnaires to assess the participants’ prejudice and dehumanization of blacks. They found that participants who implicitly associated black with apes thought the black children were older and less innocent.

In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

(If you watched Melissa Harris-Perry this morning you saw Dr. Goff sitting at the table for most of the show. The article is here.)

I’m sitting here reading the UU blog reaction to the events in Ferguson and am trying to figure out what is different. Why was it Michael Brown’s death that caused the angst? Was it Michael Brown’s death that caused it? Or was it the pictures and film of journalists getting detained/arrested and tear-gassed?

Because, in fact, there was no UU blog reaction to the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD last month. And it was on video.

How long will this awakening last? The cynic in me is saying that there is going to be the same “how did I not see this?” reaction NEXT month when another unarmed black person gets killed at the hands of law enforcement. And the next month. And the next month.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Think on that.


4 thoughts on “The First Step In Not Being An Ostrich? Stop Dehumanizing Black Children (#Ferguson)

  1. Are you sure that this is the “first time” UUs have responded to murders like this one??? I’ve been horrified over and over, as thy seem to keep happening ….. And I have no idea what to do about it except to keep talking. But now I’ve written to you, on your blog, because it has now happened In your neighborhood (almost) and I was worried personally and specifically about you. btw, I’m pleased to belong to the Quaker worship group here… The UUs nearly did my soul in. Bunny

  2. Part of it is that I was reacting to the black people in my social network. I was aware of Eric Garner and understood that he’d been killed wantonly and needlessly, but I didn’t see any sentiment for reaction. Michael Davis was different. From the very start, people were reacting and mobilizing. Pretty quickly there was an NMOS14 vigil at the state capitol. I spread the word and I went myself.

    That’s politics and it’s valid.

    As a spiritual matter, however, you are right: Each of those deaths was a terrible thing that called for some response. That I’m going to think on.

    The other thing is Michael Brown was younger than Eric Garner. The dehumanization that you talk about above is real but incomplete. All else being equal (which it never is), folks feel younger people to be more innocent than older people. And “about to start college” is an emotional appeal separate from the questionable “he was a good boy” appeal (questionable since no one should be killed wantonly).

    • It’s so hard to get the information about state action involving women of color. It’s out there, but it’s hard to get. Like the information about the California Highway Patrol person who beat up the grandmother recently. (I can’t remember her name at the moment) We’re lucky that it’s on video, so there is something to go on there.
      But so often these things happen at night, and are cases of mistaken identity involving serving of search warrants. Which is an even greater problem; about the militarization of the police.

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