Denial is a River, Wider Than the Charles: Racism and Implicit Bias in Cambridge

If you wish to gaze upon the depth and breadth of America’s racial divide–particularly the canyon-like gulf between white folks and black folks–you need look no further than the recent incident involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge police officer James Crowley, and now, President Obama who weighed in on the matter a few nights ago, when asked for his reaction to Gates’s arrest on charges (since dismissed) of disorderly conduct. In this case, as with so many other news stories that have touched on race–the O.J. Simpson trial and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as just two of the more obvious examples–whites and blacks, generally speaking, and with obvious exceptions on both sides, see the story and the racial component of the story in fundamentally different (often diametrically opposed) ways.

To hear most white folks tell it, Gates was to blame. Yes, he was only trying to enter his own home when a white woman saw him (as well as his driver), assumed they were burglars and then convinced another woman to call the cops on her behalf. And yes, he produced identification for the officer when asked, indicating that he was indeed the resident of the house to which the officer had come to investigate the initial call. But because he became belligerent to Sgt. Crowley, and because he unfairly called Crowley a racist, he is guilty of escalating the situation, and thus, is the bad guy in the scenario. Meanwhile Crowley, according to the dominant white narrative, spread by media far and wide, is a wonderful and thoughtful cop, who is hardly a racist–after all he teaches a diversity training class and once gave mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation to a dying black athlete–and who was inappropriately smeared: first by Gates who accused the officer of asking him for proof of residency only because he was black, and then by Obama, who said the police had acted “stupidly” in arresting the esteemed professor in his own home.

Such a perception on the part of whites makes sense, given the white racial frame, as sociologist Joe Feagin calls it, through which most whites view these matters. That frame says, among other things, that as long as you are respectful to police, nothing bad will happen to you (thus, if something bad does happen to you it was likely your own fault), and secondly, that there can be no racism involved in an incident unless the person being accused of such a thing clearly acted with bigoted and prejudicial intent. In this case, since Gates mouthed off and Crowley is, from all accounts, hardly a bigot, the case is closed so far as the dominant white narrative is concerned.

But to most black folks, their frame or lens is entirely different, and not because they are irrational or hypersensitive (which is what many whites assume, sadly) but because their experiences with law enforcement are, frankly, different than those typically enjoyed by whites. Far too many African Americans, and many other persons of color, have experienced mistreatment at the hands of police, no matter their behavior (1). For instance, they are, according to all available evidence, more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, even though, when stopped, they are less likely to have drugs on them than whites (2). In other words, even when they have done nothing wrong, the suspicion that they are up to no good causes cops to disproportionately suspect them of wrongdoing and then treat them as criminals until proven otherwise. In addition, there have been numerous examples in recent years of black and brown folks–mostly men but some women as well–who have been killed by police, even though they posed no threat to the officers, and were unarmed. Although these tragedies have happened to white folks too, such occurrences are far less common.

So for African Americans, the possibility that racism was involved in the Gates incident is more than an idle suspicion. First, they wonder, understandably, whether or not the white woman who initially expressed alarm about the two men on Gates’s porch, and then got the second woman to call police would have done so had the two men she saw trying to enter Gates’s residence been white: one in a suit (the driver) and the other casually but well dressed, with gray hair, in his late 50s, as with Gates. There is no way to know for sure. But it’s not a crazy question, and given the evidence from years of research, suggesting that whites are more likely to perceive ambiguous behavior by blacks as criminal or aggressive, than we are for other whites, it is a question backed up by social science as well.

Because there has been almost no discussion of what the research literature says on this point, within the week-long media feeding frenzy on this story, perhaps now would be a good time to present it. First, because doing so will allow us to understand the way in which implicit racial bias operates, even without bigoted or prejudicial intent (and how this may have been in evidence that day in Cambridge); and secondly, so as to de-escalate the rhetoric surrounding the event on both sides. Thus, we can make the conversation less about whether “Crowley is a racist,” or “Was Gates belligerent?” and more about how a white officer may well have perceived Gates’s belligerence (accepting for now the officer’s account of Gates’s behavior), and how that perception may have been skewed by racial biases that, although not consciously held, still can prove influential to white cognition.

The good news for us, is that there is over thirty years of social science evidence to which we can turn in order to evaluate this matter.

For instance, one famous study showed white focus group members a video in which a black actor and a white actor engaged in an argument. On the tape shown to one group of whites, the black actor shoves the white actor out of the way at one point. On the tape shown to a second group, it is the white actor who does the shoving. In all other respects the tapes were the same (and the whites viewing the different films had been randomly selected so they too, functionally speaking, were no different). Afterward, the white respondents were asked a series of questions about what they had seen. Among them, was a question that asked whether they perceived the shove administered at the end of the argument as aggressive or violent. Three out of four whites who had seen the black actor do the shoving, answered yes. But only 17% of the whites who had seen the white actor administer the exact same kind of shove felt the act had been aggressive or violent (3).

Although this study was administered in the 1970s, there is little reason to believe that time alone would change the way white Americans, at a subconscious level, perceive aggression in blacks, as opposed to other whites. More importantly, additional studies since that time have found similar results: one found that even as children, whites view blacks as more aggressive than other whites engaged in the very same behavior (4).

More recently, “shoot or hold fire” studies have determined that when shown videos of blacks and whites engaged in various ambiguous activities, participants are quicker to shoot unarmed blacks, and to hold fire on whites, even when the latter are armed and dangerous (5). These tendencies, it should be noted, bear no relationship to the degree of overt racial bias expressed by participants in pre-interviews. Rather, they seem tied to implicit, even subconscious biases, which research shows can be easily triggered in situations where common stereotypes of racial groups are made salient.

Even more disturbing, studies have found that whites often fabricate memories of events in ways that fit common racial stereotypes. For instance, in one study, participants were given details of an assault case, as if they were in the role of jurors. Asked to remember the case details later, participants overwhelmingly misremembered aggressive conduct by blacks in the stories, even when such conduct did not occur, and they were far less likely to remember aggressive conduct by whites, even when, in the narratives given to them, it did occur (6).

In another case, participants were shown news stories involving crime, in which the color of the shown perpetrator was digitally manipulated. By large margins, respondents were more likely to remember the race of the perp when the perp shown was black, and often even misremembered the perp as black, when he was not (7). An additional study found that when shown perp mug shots of blacks, as opposed to whites, respondents were far more likely to presume guilt in the former case as opposed to the latter, even when the available facts in evidence were the same (8).

Other research, in which participants are hooked up to MRI machines, has found that even when shown a black face on a screen subliminally (i.e., for such a small fraction of time that the conscious mind is unable to process it, though the subconscious mind can), the part of the brain known as the amygdala (which is the part that processes fear responses and anxiety), lights up far more than when shown a subliminal image of a white face (9).

Here it is worth quoting Linda Hamilton Krieger and Susan Fiske, from their 2006 California Law Review article on implicit bias:

Krieger and Fiske explain:

“As social psychologists John Bargh and James Uleman, among others, have demonstrated, merely encountering a member of a stereotyped group primes the trait constructs associated with, and in a sense, constituting the stereotype. Once activated, these constructs can function as implicit expectancies, spontaneously shaping the perceiver’s perception, characterization, memory and judgment of the stereotyped target” (10)

So, in terms of the event that brought Gates to the attention of the police in the first place, it seems eminently reasonable to ask whether the criminality of Gates and his driver were more likely assumed because of their color than would have been the case had the professor been white. And it is this question–made reasonable by the very social science research about which Gates is surely aware–that no doubt would lead him to express anger at the thought of being presumed anything but the resident of his own home.

All of which means that when Sgt. Crowley arrived, he found himself in the middle of a sociological and psychological drama not of his own making, but from which he could hardly extricate himself neatly. Angered by the potential implication of the witness’s suspicions, Gates became enraged and let the officer know it. The officer, despite his supposed depth of knowledge on matters of race and diversity, failed to appreciate the background narrative that was surely running, with good reason, through Gates’s mind, and instead took the anger personally: something that is unprofessional for a diversity trainer, and doubly so for a cop. That Crowley is a diversity trainer, but apparently unfamiliar with the sometimes caustic but ultimately harmless exercise known as “the dozens” which Gates proceeded to run on him, by saying “I’ll see your mama on the porch,” is especially interesting.

In any event, at this point folks of color logically wonder if Crowley would have arrested a white man who exhibited the same “belligerence” as is claimed for Dr. Gates. Again, we can’t know for sure, but just as was true for the discussion of the witness’s perceptions, the question is not an irrational or unfair one. Especially when the charge for which Gates was arrested was such an inherently subjective one. Disorderly conduct after all, unlike say, armed robbery, or drug possession, has no clear-cut, objective definition. It is the epitome of vagueness, in fact, such that individual police judgments are intrinsically in play in situations involving such charges. And given the above-mentioned research, which finds that whites are quicker to view blacks as disruptive, aggressive, even violent, than we are to view whites this way–even when the behaviors being exhibited are functionally no different–it is perfectly reasonable to wonder whether Crowley may have overreacted to Gates’s behavior, however inappropriate he may have found it to be, in a way that escalated the situation from mere obnoxiousness (which is not illegal) to disorderly conduct, which is.

Bottom line: this incident demonstrates in painful relief the obliviousness to the black experience, which we as whites are allowed to indulge, and in which we are allowed to wallow. We cannot understand what it feels like to be thought of as a criminal solely because of our race. We have no comparable social context that would allow us to process the depth of the psychological injury that flows from such a thing. And even if race is not the reason for such suspicion in a given case, the mere possibility that it could be (based on the history of these kinds of things) is enough to generate anxiety, stress and even real somatic pain for those seen through this lens.

Indeed, research on the health effects of racism has actually found that it is precisely in these kinds of cases, in which the racial motivation is less clear, where the negative impact on blacks is greatest. The “attributional ambiguity” of such cases (fancy language for, “what the hell was that about?”) is what causes blacks, for instance, to expend valuable emotional and cognitive resources trying to analyze each situation anew. The stress from such a response heightens what is known as the allostatic load for those experiencing it, through the release of stress hormones (such as cortisol). This in turn is directly related to hypertension, which is then directly linked to the excess mortality rate of African Americans relative to whites.

In order to move the racial dialogue forward, and to ultimately dismantle systems of racial domination and subordination, the way in which folks of color experience white-dominated institutions will have to be understood and appreciated, by the very whites who have for so long, remained in profound denial about this matter. It will require that we strive to understand, at a deep and personal level, that incidents can be experienced as racist assaults even if those doing the assaulting do not intend to be racist. Because inbetween the actor and the acted upon, there is a vast territory known as history, and within that territory lay the memories of a thousand terrors, fears, insecurities and remembrances. That few whites have ever taken a trip to that place hardly acquits us from the need to understand it and recognize it as a real place, to which our brothers and sisters of color have been long consigned.


(1) Nelson, Jill. ed. Police Brutality: An Anthology. (2000) New York: W.W. Norton.

(2) Durose, Matthew, et al., Contacts Between Police and the Public: Findings From the 2002 National Survey. (April 2005). U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Harris, David, Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Can’t Work. (2002). New York: The New Press, 216-17.

(3) Duncan, Birt L. “Differential Social Perception and Attributes of Intergroup Violence: Testing the Lower LImits of Stereotyping of Blacks,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1976).

(4) Sager, H. Andrew and Janet Wind Schofield, “Racial and Behavioral Cues in Black and White Children’s Perceptions of Ambiguously Aggressive Acts,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1980).

(5) Correll, Joshua, et al., “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83:6 (2002); Payne, B. Keith, “Prejudice and Perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2001); Eberhardt, Jennifer L. et al., “Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2004).

(6) Levinson, Justin D. “Forgotten Racial Equality: Implicit Bias, Decision-Making and Misremembering,” 57 DUKE L. JOUR. November, 2007.

(7) Gilliam, Franklin D. Jr. and Shanto Iyangar, “Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public,” 44 American Journal of Political Science (2000).

(8) Peffley, Mark, et al., “The Intersection of Race and Crime in Television News Stories: An Experimental Study,” 13 Political Communication (1996).

(9) Cunningham, William A. et al., “Separable Neural Components in the Processing of Black and White Faces,” 15:12 Psychological Science (2004); Phelps, Elizabeth et al., “Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation,” 12:5 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2000).

(10) Krieger, Linda Hamilton and Susan T. Fiske, “Behavioral Realism in Employment Discrimination Law: Implicit Bias and Disparate Treatment,” 94 CAL. L. REV. 997 (2006).

Tim Wise is the author of four books on race. His most recent is Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. City Lights Books, 2009.

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