Stereotype Threat in Police Encounters: Why African Americans are at Risk of Being Targeted as Suspects
Najdowski, Cynthia J.
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One of the most frequent complaints minorities have about the criminal justice system is bias-based policing—the use of race as a basis for law enforcement decisions. Although racial bias and cultural stereotypes depicting African Americans as criminals set the stage for biased policing, they also likely have effects on Black citizens that ultimately and ironically contribute to the unwarranted disparate treatment of racial groups. I examined whether social psychological theory on stereotype threat provides an explanation for why police officers are more likely to suspect Black than White individuals. I theorized that, unlike Whites, innocent Black individuals experience stereotype threat in police encounters, which in turn causes Blacks to experience greater arousal related to anxiety, self-regulatory efforts, and cognitive load, and consequently, to display more nonverbal behaviors associated with deception. These racial differences in nonverbal behaviors, in turn, contribute to police officers' decisions to target Blacks as suspects disproportionately more often than Whites. I tested the former mediational hypotheses in two studies. Study 1 revealed that, as predicted, Blacks were significantly more likely than Whites to agree that they experience stereotype threat in police encounters in general. Study 2 showed that this effect generalized to a staged encounter with a White security officer. As hypothesized, Blacks experienced more stereotype threat than Whites. Further, this effect was found only when the security officer was portrayed as investigating a crime, not when he was asking for directions to a diversity training meeting (i.e., only when the criminal stereotype was relevant to the situation). Although stereotype threat did not translate into racial differences in a variety of quantifiable nonverbal behaviors (e.g., frequency of smiles, gestures, etc.), it did lead Blacks to appear more nervous overall as compared to Whites. Further, all participants appeared more nervous when the security officer was investigating a crime than when he was asking for directions. This research extends stereotype threat theory to the new domain of police encounters, and suggests that it could influence behavior in ways that ironically increase the likelihood that Blacks in particular will be perceived by police suspicious.