Study Finds Police More Likely To Use Force Against Black Children When Officers Dehumanize Blacks

Research published by the American Psychological Association shows that black boys as young as 10-years-old may be seen as less innocent than their white peers. Black boys are much more likely to be mistaken for being older and to be perceived as guilty, and face police violence if they are accused of committing a crime.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

The researchers involved with the study tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, with an average of 37-years-old, to determine their levels of bias. The biases that researchers tested for were prejudice and unconscious dehumanization. To determine prejudice researchers had officers fill out a widely used questionnaire that featured statements such as “it is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.”

To determine the officer’s levels of dehumanization towards blacks, researchers asked the participating officers to pair blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes.

In a briefing paper presented to the U.S. State Department entitled, “The 8 Stages of Genocide” by Gregory H. Stanton, dehumanization is described as when “One group, denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.”

Those who compared blacks to apes were seen as having a higher level of dehumanization. Researchers compared the officer’s personal records against their levels of dehumanization towards blacks. They found that officers who had higher levels of dehumanization towards blacks were more likely of having a history of using force against black children in custody, than those who did not dehumanize blacks. Use of force was defined for the purposes of the study as instances of an officer using a takedown or wristlock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt instrument using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock or killing. Surprisingly, only dehumanization was found to increase a police officer’s use of force against blacks. Both conscious and unconscious prejudice did not have any link to the likelihood of police officers using violent force against black children in custody, according to the study.

Police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of blacks could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children.

“We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.

Another part of the study involved 264 mostly white female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. Participants rated the innocence of people from the age of infancy to 25-year-olds who were either black, white, or an unidentified race. Participants in the experiment rated children up to the age of nine as being equally innocent across races. Black children, who were of the age 10 and above, were perceived as being significantly less innocent compared to 10-year-olds who were not black. The students were then shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, black, or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. Students overestimated the age of black children by an average of 4.5 years.

Participants also found the black children to be more culpable looking than White or Latino children, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes. Researchers used the same methods to assess students prejudice and dehumanization of blacks, as they did with police officers. Students who associated blacks with apes perceived black children as being older and less innocent.

In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

Dehumanization is the third step towards genocide. Recently there has been a push to charge the Chicago Police Department with genocide due to unequal use of force and the pervasive racial profiling by police officers. Racial profiling and unequal use of force are by no means a problem that exists solely in Chicago; it is a cancer that is spread throughout the entirety of the U.S. With the knowledge that dehumanization may specifically be one of the most pervasive forces that leads to excessive use of force towards African-Americans, the inclusion of anti-dehumanization training may yield a significant reduction in the unequal force against African-Americans. As for combating dehumanization held by the larger population in a genocidal society Stanton writes in The 8 Steps of Genocide,

“Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Leaders who incite genocide should be banned from international travel and have their foreign finances frozen. Hate radio stations should be shut down, and hate propaganda banned. Hate crimes and atrocities should be promptly punished.”

If we are to move forward as a nation, or even have the right to exist at all, then we must strive to create a culture were children of all races are seen as human and receive equal treatment under the law.


Featured image credit: By John H. White, 1945-, Photographer (NARA record: 4002141) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons