Mr. Hildreth, Anecdotes Don’t Invalidate Science

Conservative America rejoiced recently when an African American, Steven Hildreth, Jr., publicized on social media his peaceful encounter with a Tucson, Arizona police officer. Hildreth was legally armed at the time he was pulled over.

After explaining how the officer appreciated Hildreth’s respect so much he let slide a blown headlight and an outdated registration card, Hildreth wrote on Facebook:

I’m a black man wearing a hoodie and strapped. According to certain social movements, I shouldn’t be alive right now because the police are allegedly out to kill minorities.

Maybe…just maybe…that notion is bunk. Maybe if you treat police officers with respect, they will do the same to you. Police officers are people, too. By far and large, most are good people and they’re not out to get you.

True, the hundreds of thousands who shared his post and the rest of the U.S. can together rejoice that no tragedy occurred. Blacks and whites, and people of all political persuasions, can acknowledge many police officers are good people, and feel relief Hildreth and this officer interacted with civility.

Yet anecdotes like this in no way invalidate the research that shows black Americans are overall treated differently than white Americans who commit the same acts. Conservative whites, and blacks as well, delighted in this story because they see it as evidence that members of the Black Lives Matter movement and similar social justice groups are delusional, their ideas “bunk.”

Anecdotes, personal experiences, are a huge part of the story of modern American racism. But one cannot rely on them alone to measure conscious–let alone subconscious–prejudice.

A leftist could draw Hildreth’s attention to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy killed by police in Cleveland in November 2014. Watch the video here.

Rice was playing outside with a pellet gun–in an open-carry state. The police pulled up next to him and immediately shot him. They did not park at a safe distance and demand he drop the gun and raise his hands. They did not give him the opportunity to respectfully hand over his weapon.

If all a black male has to do is treat an officer with respect, why is Tamir Rice in a cemetery?  

In court, the city blamed the boy, insistent of his “failure…to exercise due care to avoid injury” and claimed the boy’s family was suffering damages “caused by their own acts.”

This is evidence that blacks can be the victims of horrific police brutality, in the same way Hildreth’s story is evidence blacks and police officers can interact peaceably. But like Hildreth, a leftist cannot rely on this story alone to support his or her worldview.

Are we at an impasse? A stalemate between stories that tell very different tales? Or is racism measured not with individual anecdotes, but through scientific research, controlled experiments?

As documented in Tim Wise’s Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, psychological experiments reveal nearly 90% of whites subconsciously associate blacks with negative terms like “violence.”

About 60% of whites will openly admit to trusting negative stereotypes about lower intelligence, higher aggression, and greater laziness in blacks. 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be free of blacks.

We can measure the results of these ideas scientifically. For example, when researchers decided to send out resumes to employers, identical except half had “white” names at the top and half had “black” names, the latter was 50% less likely to be called for an interview. The study was entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Studies like one in 2002 show that ordinary civilians in simulations are far quicker to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and decide quicker to spare an unarmed white than an unarmed black.

Could negative ideas about black people, whether conscious or subconscious, also affect police officers?

2005 research in Psychological Science showed police officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites. Remarkably, the bias diminished with extensive time in the simulation.

A 2006 study published in Basic and Applied Psychology found that during simulations, as Fair and Impartial Policing put it,

Officers with negative attitudes toward Black suspects and negative beliefs regarding the criminality of Black people tended to shoot unarmed Black suspects more often in the simulation than officers with more positive attitudes and beliefs toward Blacks.

Luckily, as Lorie Fridell, former director of the Police Executive Research Forum, wrote in “This is Not Your Grandparents’ Prejudice”:

Scientists have shown that implicit biases can be reduced through positive contact with stereotyped groups (e.g., for a review, see Pettigrew and Tropp, 2005) and through counter-stereotyping, whereby individuals are exposed to information that is the opposite of the cultural stereotypes about the group (e.g., Kawakami et al., 2005, 2009).

The former mechanism provides further justification for community policing methods, such as permanent assignments and positive police interactions and partnerships with the diverse individuals within a community. The latter mechanism provides the theoretical rationale for use-of-force role-play training (including computer simulations) that randomly pairs the demographics of subjects to scenarios that do and do not result in threat or danger to officers (see Correll et al., 2007).

Research from the University of Chicago in 2007 and 2009 compared community members’ and police officers’ decisions to use lethal force in simulations of dangerous situations. Both groups had anti-black biases in reaction time. But these police officers were actually less likely to act on it:

That is, ultimately the officers made the right decision and were not impacted by race.  The researchers attribute this finding for the officers to frequent, high quality, role play (e.g., Simunitions, computer scenarios) training in the use of force that can serve to extinguish the race-crime implicit bias for force decisions.

While it is clear police officers have the same subconscious biases as the rest of us, not all police officers experience the same training. Could the absence of bias-reducing training play a role in police killings of blacks like Tamir Rice, or is that “bunk,” as Hildreth suggests?

Scientific studies and analysis of real-world cases help us see that blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Large percentages of blacks report racist words and actions, large and small, as constants in life. Wise’s Colorblind documents many studies, for those who want to go in-depth.

Unarmed Americans killed in the first half of 2015 were twice as likely to be black than white. True, this is an analysis of a real-world case, not a controlled study. Yet someone like Hildreth would perhaps read that statistic and conclude unarmed blacks are more likely than unarmed whites to be disrespectful, to disobey, to get aggressive. These are very old, racist ideas, and one might wonder if conservatives have scientific studies to support them.

By being unaware of or downplaying the role of subconscious and conscious racism that research shows to be prevalent, conservatives, black and white alike, encourage others to solely blame the victim, to view police shootings without any scientific context. This perpetuates racist myths about the mentalities and behaviors of black people. Which, as the 2006 study suggests, could lead to more black deaths.

To think that subconscious anti-black biases, which nearly all whites (and even some blacks) have, could affect behavior during simulations, prison sentencing, hiring, and police stops and searches, but not the use of lethal force against civilians is naivety of the highest order.

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