It’s disheartening. But, if I can indulge my cynicism for a moment, it’s also not too surprising. From previous research, we know that—among White Americans—there’s a strong cognitive connection between “Blackness” and criminality. “The mere presence of a Black man,” note Eberhardt and other researchers in a 2004 paper, “can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal.”
Indeed, they continue, simply thinking about Black Americans can lead people to see ambiguous actions as aggressive and to see harmless objects as weapons. When Michael Dunn saw 17-year-old Jordan Davis and his friends, he perceived a threat, imagined a gun, and opened fire, killing Davis. “I was the one who was victimized,” said Dunn in a phone call to his fiancée before his trial. It’s ludicrous, but it’s not dishonest. Like many other Americans, Dunn sees Black people—and Black men in particular—as a criminal threat.
What’s striking is this goes both ways. “In a crime-obsessed culture,” says the study, “simply thinking of crime can lead perceivers to conjure up images of Black Americans that ‘ready’ these perceivers to register and selectively attend to Black people who may be present in the actual physical environment.” In other words, the connection between Blacks and crime is so tight that just thinking about crime—irrespective of the environment—triggers thoughts of Black people in the same way that thinking of Black people triggers thoughts of crime. And if you want a more disturbing thought, consider this: In one of the 2004 experiments, researchers found that exposing police officers to crime-related words followed by photos of Black inmates “increases the likelihood that they will misremember a Black face as more stereotypically Black than it actually was.”