Images and reports of people taking to the streets to protest last month’s killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police have sparked conversations among Americans on police use of force to control crowds, the morality of looting, and the destruction of property to vent anger and garner attention for a cause.
Divergent perceptions of the unrest have roots in unconscious biases and knowledge of historical contexts, says James Jones, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Delaware, Newark, who has studied the psychology underlying prejudice and racism. Understanding where those biases come from and how to counteract them will be key to moving toward a more just society after this highly charged moment, he says.
Science spoke to Jones about the protests and perceptions of them. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How have you seen attitudes about prejudice and protests change over the years?
A: I’m 79 years old, and I’ve been at this for a very long time. Having that experience coalesces a lot of things for me. I started writing the first edition of my book Prejudice and Racism in 1970, following the civil rights movement, and at that time we were talking about institutional racism. We saw the problem as state-sanctioned discrimination that undermined the citizenship rights of black people.
No doubt progress has been made, but what I think this event signals to me is that our efforts have been fundamentally incapable of redressing the negative feelings, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs that underlie this systematic, continued bias against black people.
In one sense, I’m hopeful this is finally an inflection point, a watershed like the 1960s were, that fundamentally changes how we approach things. We’ve done a lot of research about how to reduce people’s adherence to stereotypes and help different groups recognize their commonalities. But at the same time, the academic enterprise does not inform policies as much as it should. Maybe this will galvanize policymakers to take the research more seriously.
Q: What drives different perceptions of these protests?
A: Race is embedded in our individual and collective psyches. Research by Jennifer Eberhardt and others has shown that when race is salient in the brain, our perceptions are altered. A subliminal image of a black face makes people more likely to perceive a fuzzy image as a gun. Stereotypes also link physical attributes to internal or behavioral states. Black stereotypes, for instance, are most commonly linked to hostility, criminality, and violence. The response to these stereotypic associations is often fear, particularly of black men.
Those stereotypes and that fear lead some people, and some police, to view black protesters as scary, violent criminals.
Q: Are there any insights from psychology that could inform police de-escalation policies and reduce violence against black protesters?
A: A poignant video is circulating that shows a phalanx of police in Fayetteville, North Carolina, kneeling before a group of protesters. This came about at the direction of the police chief. It signaled the kind of sensitivity and restraint and perspective that is clearly the way to defuse these situations. The bottom line is that when people perceive they are on the same side, antagonism recedes.
My colleague Sam Gaertner has done a great amount of research that shows that when people from different groups are brought together as one group, they perceive each other and interact with one another more positively.
Q: Does protesting and venting of anger have psychological benefits?
A: These events have created a context in which blacks feel vindicated, and whites feel they have an opportunity to show their humanity. So yes, protesting, vocalizing, and venting can play a psychologically protective role.
Q: What role can scientists play in supporting racial and social justice?
A: At national funding agencies, there is a hierarchy of value of what research is important, and funding for research into racial justice is slippery and grudgingly provided. One of the first things researchers can do is speak up to say, “This work is important, this work is valuable.”
Not only do we need more people of color involved in academe, but we need the questions they are asking to be viewed with greater positivity. When we talk about wanting to diversify the professoriate, we often look at it demographically: We’ve got more black people working in this or that area. And a large percentage of them over the years have been doing the work that anybody else does—it’s great that black people can be mathematicians and solve other kinds of scientific problems. But if you want to have a professoriate that advances our understanding of these momentous issues in our society, it needs to be broader than just having more scientists of color. We must look at the problems we are facing and ask, “How do we get a scientific purchase on that?”
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