Differing experiences of white, Black Americans drive racially polarized views of police shootings

December 14, 2020

A police car in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash)

White and Black Americans’ different judgments on the facts and circumstances of police shootings are best explained by each group’s preexisting beliefs concerning police bias and the likely culpability of victims, new research concluded, exposing thorny obstacles in the quest to build civic trust among social groups and the institutions sworn to protect them.

In an article published in Perspectives on Politics on Dec. 4, co-authors Hakeem Jefferson of Stanford University, Fabian G. Neuner of Arizona State University and Josh Pasek of the University of Michigan showed that the differences in perceptions between white and Black Americans boil down largely to divergent beliefs and expectations each group holds based on social identity and lived experience.

“Blacks and whites have very different experiences when it comes to the justice system, both personally and vicariously, and therefore have different beliefs about how fair officers are in their treatment of African-Americans,” Jefferson told The Academic Times, noting also that, "White Americans have more negative views of Black victims,” than their Black counterparts do.

While the article shows some evidence to suggest that motivated reasoning — a process in which individuals deploy evidence to justify a preferred conclusion rather than the one most faithful to the facts — plays a part in accounting for the racial divide in perceptions of police shootings, the researchers found much stronger support for their hypothesis that white and Black Americans on average arrived at disparate assessments of the situation based on different “prior beliefs and expectations regarding police bias and the likely culpability of Black victims.”

“It’s these prior beliefs and expectations that seem to be doing the bulk of the work in explaining this racial divide,” Jefferson said.

In an effort to analyze the mechanisms driving racially polarized views of police shootings, the researchers tested two hypotheses: one accounting for the split in terms of race-based “motivated reasoning,” and the other positing that the divergence is a function of the groups’ respective prior beliefs and expectations.

Jefferson, Neuner and Pasek designed a set of tests to determine which explanation best explained the divergence under study. They gathered respondents’ demographic data, as well as information about their racial attitudes and beliefs about the criminal justice system, and later studied the same individuals’ reactions to the fictionalized shooting of a Black man by a police officer whose race was not identified. 

The data that the researchers gathered gave them reason to believe that for the most part, the difference in perceptions of the incident among Black and white respondents wasn’t motivated by their desires to “save face” for their respective identity groups. That’s because the researchers had reasoned that “priming” individuals — preparing them with questions about their racial identities and other items designed to gauge the strength of their racial affinities — before they received information about the shooting scenario would amplify the divide between groups engaged in defending their racial in-groups. 

Against those expectations, they found, respondents who were “primed” with questions before being given information about the scenario didn’t show large jumps in polarization relative to those who were not. 

But when adding measures of prior belief to their statistical models, Jefferson said, they pinpointed a much stronger link to the gulf in respondents’ perceptions of the scenario. “Race is operating through the channels of these prior beliefs and expectations that Blacks and whites have about the criminal justice system and about Black victims,” he continued.

The article’s findings point to biases that seriously complicate Americans’ ability to come to a common understanding rooted in shared facts. “There’s simply no other way to read the data,” Jefferson said. “When presented with the same exact set of information, Black and white Americans treat that information quite differently” and along predictable lines.

Pointing in particular to results showing how differently white and Black respondents weighted character witness statements from civilians and police officials, Jefferson said the paper gives reason for pessimism.

“What we mean to suggest is that jurors are people, too. And so when Black and white jurors deliberate about these kinds of cases, we should at least ex ante expect that they’re going to come into the jury room assigning different amounts of weight to the evidence that bears on the case facts. It’s going to put up quite a hurdle to consensus building in this deliberative process,” he said.

Even so, certain interventions may help bridge the divide in perceptions about police shootings. The paper’s co-authors are exploring further research probing whether asking people to actively consider their biases might mitigate some of the polarization, for example.

Ultimately, Jefferson said, skepticism among Black Americans toward police points to problems best addressed at the structural level. “Principally, we’ve got to reimagine what policing looks like. I don’t think the onus is on Black Americans to update their beliefs about an institution that so often confirms the worst beliefs that Black folks have about it,” he said.

While it’s important to help public opinion move in a more positive direction, Jefferson added, “Our energy is better served in thinking with law enforcement about how they can earn the trust of Black folks.”

“Seeing Blue in Black and White: Race and Perceptions of Officer-Involved Shootings” was published on Dec. 4 in Perspectives on Politics by co-authors Hakeem Jefferson, Stanford University; Fabian G. Neuner, Arizona State University; and Josh Pasek, University of Michigan.

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