Stereotyping and bias are universal human phenomena. Police officers, lawyers, judges, jury members, and other figures in the criminal justice system are not immune to the grave effects of implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat on decision making and interpersonal contact. One study found that when police are subliminally exposed to or “primed” with words like “violent,” “crime,” or “stop,” they more quickly focus on pictures of black male faces when compared to white male faces. Priming also led police officers to misremember the faces as having more stereotypically African American features. In another study, police officers were given pictures of faces and asked, “Who looks criminal?” They more often chose black faces than white faces.
Studies by Perception Institute Research Advisor Phillip Attiba Goff demonstrate a link between stereotype threat and police brutality. In his work with police departments across the country, Goff has found that anxiety about appearing racist has a greater correlation with use of excessive force, demonstrating that stereotype threat’s limiting of cognitive capacity can have serious consequences.
Black men and boys also fare worse with prosecutors. Studies have shown that prosecutors are more likely to prosecute black than white defendants and that white defendants are more likely to receive generous plea bargains. In capital sentencing, murderers of white victims are more likely to get the death penalty than murderers of black victims, and black murderers of white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death if they appear more stereotypically African American.
As outlined in our report Transforming Perception, research has recently turned to interventions that can lessen the impact of implicit bias, stereotype threat and racial anxiety on the criminal justice system. What’s needed now are more pilot programs that operationalize what the research tells us in order to make meaningful change.