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Social Psychology and Racial Profiling

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racial profiling

Six months after becoming the first African-American president, Barak Obama ignited a media frenzy when he commented that police officers acted "stupidly" in arresting Obama's friend, the nation's pre-eminent Black scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The heated response after the President's remark, along with charges of racial profiling against the White police officer, made post-election debates on America's possible growth into a post-racial age seem ridiculous.

Charges of racial profiling, discrimination and prejudice are usually loaded with emotion and conviction, and they make provocative stories for pundits and bloggers to bandy about for weeks. Which is why, up until this point in his presidency, Obama had successfully skirted questions on racial divisions in American society, and the debate on a post-racial society remained civil.

But  Obama's exceptional response to a question on the Gates case, during a press conference designed to focus on pending health care legislation, caused a racial uproar, and stoked a fiery response among the media.  Why is racial profiling among police officers still occurring? Are minorities still discriminated against for jobs, health care and education? Are they targets of hate and distrust? Has the election of the first Black president helped alleviate these societal ills?

Unlocking the Mystery

The field of social psychology attempts to answer these questions - with science and empirical analysis.  It's an approach that serves to raise the level of discussion by examining, scientifically, how the thoughts and feelings of people affect behavior toward others.

Jack Glaser, a social psychologist and expert on racial bias and profiling, said the case of Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor trying to jimmy the lock on his front door after returning from a trip, and then getting arrested is not the right case to determine if we have racial bias in this country. Nor is President Barak Obama the right subject either. "You can't conclude from his election to the presidency that we're in a post-racial society and that racial bias is gone," he said.

Instead  a close look at experiments conducted by social psychology experts, plus an analysis of data collected by police departments and other governmental agencies should be the yardstick for measuring racial progress.

And, added Glaser,  also an associate professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, the Gates affair is more a general case of racial bias rather than racial profiling.

"Police weren't just cruising the neighborhood, saw a Black guy, and decided to check him out," Glaser said, describing a typical case of racial profiling. "In profiling cases, police find a suspect and start searching for a crime."

In the Gates case, however, a neighbor saw two men trying to force their way into an attractive home in a neighborhood that houses many Harvard professionals. She called 911 and the police arrived to find Gates, who had finally released his stuck door, already inside the home. Gates became argumentative when Sgt. James Crowley of Cambridge, Mass. police department, said that he was investigating a possible break in, and that Gates needed to produce identification.

"Why, because I'm a Black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Crowley.

At the time of this interview, Glaser said he didn't know all the details of the case, but based on what he knew, he believed that Sgt. Crowley should have left once Gates showed his ID.  Gates continued to harangue Crowley about race, however, and Crowley arrested him.

Because he didn't present a realistic physical threat to the officer, Gates' race probably contributed to his arrest, Glaser said. He bases this assumption on social psychology experiments that take place in his laboratory and others across the nation - especially groundbreaking research  developed by Joshua Correll, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Racial Profiling Research

Experimenters test thousands of community members, including police officers, using computerized simulations to measure decisions to shoot armed and unarmed Blacks and Whites, and how quickly they shoot the suspected targets. People generally are more likely to shoot a Black armed or unarmed target, than a White target. And they are faster at shooting armed Blacks than armed Whites.

However in the research samples, police officers did not tend to show the racial bias in terms of accidentally shooting unarmed targets. In other words, police officers are trained at trying to correctly identify guns and weapons. Yet police officers also tend to shoot armed Blacks faster than armed Whites.

This type of research exposes unintentional behaviors, or behaviors based on underlying racial biases that most people don't realize they possess.  Except for some fringe groups who avow racist or supremacist attitudes, most people will say that they are not prejudiced or racist.  What they don't realize, however, is that implicit biases still reside unconsciously within their cognitive processes.

And it's these implicit biases that prevent American society from moving past its troublesome past, and which remain a challenge for law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Glaser also pointed to a 2008  Illinois Traffic Stops Statistics Study by the University of Illinois at Chicago finding that Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at a much higher rate than Whites. It also states that of those stopped and who consent to being searched for drugs or other forms of contraband, minorities are searched at a higher rate than Whites. However, police officers conducting consent searches are far more likely to find contraband in a vehicle driven by a Caucasian driver than by a minority driver.

"That is very compelling evidence of racial bias -- Whites must have to behave more
suspiciously in order to get searched," Glaser said.

It's these types of empirical studies and simulation experiments that Glaser and other social psychology professionals use to help police departments across the country develop effective training programs on racial profiling and bias. Some of the more progressive departments are also including research on implicit biases - or unconscious biases. Glaser also trains California state judges on racial bias.

The importance of social psychological research and fact-based training for police and law enforcement can't be emphasized enough. The frustration with a news story like Gates' is that it becomes more of a class argument than a race argument. Would the story have received as much publicity if Gates had been a relatively unknown, poor or average Black man? Definitely not. Yet pervasive racial profiling and bias disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic men today.

Glaser's upcoming book scheduled for publication sometime in 2010, Racial Profiling: Psychological Bases and Policy Implications will bring the social psychology of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination to a law enforcement audience, and apply the principles to the difficult job of policing.

Find out how you can become involved, request information from schools offering Psychology degree programs. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.

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