When a white police officer confronts a black teenager on the street, does the idea automatically pop into his head that the kid is up to no good?
Do white youth get the benefit of the doubt from white officers, even when they are misbehaving? Does a certain kind of bias influence the way whites think about police shootings of young men of color? The answer to all these questions appears to be yes.
"Confirmation bias" is the tendency to interpret or remember information in a way that confirms what we already believe, and helps us to ignore new data.
It also may explain the tensions between white police officers and black youth — and the public reaction to them — more than outright racism does.
Many of us think police must be in the right because we have internalized a fear of black males and assume that they are up to no good.
As Harvard sociologist Charles Ogletree has pointed out, "Ninety-nine percent of black people don't commit crimes, yet we see the images of black people day in, day out, and the impression is that they're all committing crimes."
Black men face more risk of being fatally shot than whites. Young black males in recent years were at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts, reports ProPublica, which analyzed federal data this year. ProPublica found that in "1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012, blacks, age 15-19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."
Roger J.R. Levesque of the criminal justice department at Indiana State University says eyewitnesses to crimes generally report scenarios that are consistent with confirmation bias. Among the studies he cites is a 2003 one in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found merely seeing a black face led subjects to be more likely to mistake objects for weapons.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the white officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, described Brown as demon-like. Would he have used such a word if the teen had been white?
Confirmation bias undoubtedly helped the defense in the 2013 trial in the death of Trayvon Martin. Lawyers successfully "thuggized" the black teenager, who was walking home carrying candy and a bottle of tea when he was shot by a neighborhood watch member. Martin had no criminal record, but the defense dug up some minor problems he had in school and made an animated video showing him attacking the white man who shot him. There was no actual evidence that the unarmed teenager started the fight. But jurors clearly bought that narrative.
Throughout U.S. history, confirmation bias has helped some white people use the image of the evil black man for their own ends. The infamous "Willie Horton" TV ad caused a huge controversy when it ran during the 1988 presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The ad featured a fearsome-looking mug shot of a black convict who raped a woman while free under a Massachusetts prison furlough program backed by Dukakis. The ad was intended to picture Dukakis as soft on crime, and it worked.
Whites trying to escape punishment for their crimes sometimes find black men convenient scapegoats, because they are so readily seen as prone to crime. In 1989, a Boston white man, Charles Stuart, was shot in a black neighborhood in the city, along with his pregnant wife. He blamed a "black male." His wife and son, who was delivered prematurely, later died.
News coverage was extremely sympathetic until evidence surfaced indicating that Stuart shot his wife and himself.
In 1994, Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman, claimed a black man had hijacked her car and kidnapped her two young sons. For nine days, the news media gave around-the-clock coverage to a nationwide search for the black carjacker. But Smith had drowned her two sons by pushing her car into a lake with the boys inside. She had a wealthy boyfriend who allegedly was not interested in having a "ready-made" family.
It's no wonder whites so easily accept the image of the evil black male. But this was not always so.
Early in the history of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, notes Audrey Smedley, now professor emeritus of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University, blacks were not set apart from other laborers. The first slaves the English used in the Caribbean were Irish. And there were more Irish slaves in the middle of the 17th century than any others.
At that time, Smedley writes, African slaves and European slaves "worked together, they played together ... they lived together" and color didn't "make much difference ... because they were all in the same boat."
One 17th century planter who wrote to the trustees of his company said, "Please don't send us any more Irishmen. Send us some Africans, because the Africans are civilized and the Irish are not."
But plantations grew ever larger and the African slave trade exploded. To justify the cruelty of lifetime slavery, the myth had to be manufactured that blacks — especially men — were subhuman and violent. That image stuck.
In the years since, those ideas too often have intensified. As Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson points out, "More than 45 years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded that we lived in two societies, one white, one black, separate and still unequal." And we still do. If we don't resolve this gap, Dyson writes, "We are doomed to watch the same sparks reignite, whenever and wherever injustice meets desperation."
Only when we realize the power of confirmation bias, and start looking at reality instead of stereotypes and misinformation, will things change.
A version of this column was published in the Los Angeles Times.
About the writer
Caryl Rivers is a journalism professor at Boston University and the author, with Rosalind C. Barnett, of "The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy."