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Why Do So Many People See Black Protestors Different From White Ones?

The troubling social psychology of urban violence.
(Photo: Dorret/Flickr)

(Photo: Dorret/Flickr)

Since 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a black man, died in police custody under still-unclear circumstances, the streets of Baltimore have been flooded with citizens frustrated by years of systemic abuse perpetrated (and settled) by law enforcement. Like the protests over the deaths of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year, these relatively peaceful demonstrations came with pockets of rioting, looting, and violence.

The media’s coverage of the riots suggests a profound disconnect of how Americans view urban violence. Critics have pointed out that young white men destroying property are often cast as “revelers,” even when they’re torching cars at a New Hampshire pumpkin festival, while black protesters are immediately reduced to “hoodlums” or “thugs,” a term which the Atlantic’s Megan Garber notes has a surprisingly old and rich history as an implicitly criminal insult. Why, then, does American society regard black rioters different from their white counterparts?

Don’t write off those people breaking the law in the streets of Baltimore as “thugs” or “hoodlums.” White people have rioted and looted over far stupider things than the unjust death of a young black man.

If you answered “racism,” well ... yes, OK, sure. But the difference goes deeper than an explicit distaste for black Americans; deep enough that we subconsciously prescribe different values to the lives of white and black children as a matter of psychological instinct.

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that, from a young age, black boys are regarded as older and less innocent than their white peers. Researchers tested 176 mostly white police officers working in cities to determine their levels of unconscious dehumanization of black people, literally having them compare images of black suspects to those of apes, and having officers fill out a questionnaire about their attitudes toward black suspects. The researchers found that officers who viewed black people with dehumanizing stereotypes tended to over-estimate the culpability and age of black subjects: Young black men literally seemed less innocent and cherubic than white ones.

Black people aren’t just more guilty in the eyes of the police officers—they’re also perceived as being more dangerous than whites, according to 2014 research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Researchers Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman, and Sophie Trawalter explored the “suphermaniziation bias,” or “the attribution of supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans.” The researchers found that white Americans tend to view black citizens as literally magical, possessing “superhuman capacities.” (given the prevalence of the “magical Negro” in American pop culture, this should surprise no one).

While this may seem silly, it’s a stereotype visible in the instance of Michael Brown shooter Darren Wilson, who described Brown as having had an especially aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it," Wilson said, "it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” And it’s this same unconscious reaction that underpins the condemnation of the “savages” and “animals” looting in Baltimore, a sentiment absent when considering white people tearing shit up over their favorite team winning a championship.

The most disturbing part of this reaction is how deep it runs, despite the absence of “overt” racism. A 2004 meta-analysis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the concepts of “black” and “crime” were basically interchangeable with one another in terms of how subjects visually perceived black people: “Just as Black faces and Black bodies can trigger thoughts of crime,” the researchers wrote, “thinking of crime can trigger thoughts of Black people.”

While using the “right” adjective for someone destroying property may seem like small potatoes, it’s not: Recent research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that individual prejudices, even on a small, relatively harmless scale, easily turn into institutional racism—like, say, an education system that disproportionately punishes black girls for things white girls do all the time. So don’t write off those people breaking the law in the streets of Baltimore as “thugs” or “hoodlums.” White people have rioted and looted over far dumber things than the unjust death of a young black man.