Confronting Our Separation

JJason Purnell, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School

The truth is, I’ve had a very difficult time coming up with a coherent intellectual response to the past few weeks. I was on a family vacation when Michael Brown was fatally shot, and my initial response had very little to do with the frameworks, theories, or data from my discipline of public health.

My reaction was at a more visceral level.

A young man was shot and killed, and his body was lying out in the middle of the street for several hours. And I was born about five miles from where it happened. I am also the father of a little boy who will someday be 18 years old. My wife and I are working very hard to provide resources for him that will allow for his boundless success, but my fear is that his already evident brilliance, his energy, his loving heart will not be noticed in some split-second encounter that could do him grave harm.

I also hurt for my hometown, to be wracked with unprecedented convulsions of violence in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown. My parents took me home from the hospital to a small municipality called Northwoods, almost directly south of Ferguson. The events of the last several weeks are not academic abstractions to me. They are about my life, my family, and my home. This is a discussion about Michael Brown—an actual human being, characterized by all of the complexity and profundity that humanity entails.

And it is the proposition of Michael Brown’s humanity that I take as my point of departure as I begin to apply a slightly more academic way of knowing to this situation. I have been invited to speak based on my work in public health, and I’m happy to talk about that, but I am also a psychologist by training, and that influences how I see the world. I called on one of my friends, Dr. Leslie Zorwick, at Hendrix College in Arkansas. Dr. Zorwick is a brilliant social psychologist, and I wanted to know what social psychology had to teach us about this situation. It turns out, quite a bit.

We’ve known for quite some time in psychology that a great deal of our mental processing—perhaps more than we are comfortable admitting—happens outside of our consciousness. And the upshot of a broad body of research is that you do not have to consciously espouse racially biased views in order to think and act in ways that nevertheless belie such bias.

Professor L. Song Richardson at the University of Iowa College of Law and Professor Phillip Goff in the Department of Psychology at UCLA have introduced the concept of “suspicion heuristic” to “explain how non-conscious processes can lead to systematic and predictable errors in judgments of criminality—and influence subsequent behaviors—regardless of conscious attitudes.” A heuristic is a kind of mental shortcut we all use to quickly process information in the world around us. This particular heuristic uses race as a shorthand for criminality regardless of any conscious animosity towards a racial group. A black teenager is more readily assumed to be a criminal than a peer from another group. And the work of Richardson and Goff builds on a large body of research in implicit bias. This is concerned with the automatic associations we make, again at the level of largely non-conscious processing, for instance when research participants quickly associate the word “criminal” with a picture of an African American. And this is not happening at a level of voluntary control. Rather, these associations are furnished by culture and society, by ready-made stereotypes, that lead individuals to have them.

One set of studies, also conducted by Professor Goff and his colleagues, suggests that even as young as age 10, black children are perceived to be both older and less innocent than other children. And the principal explanation for this perception, according to this research, is that black children—particularly black boys—are implicitly perceived as less human than other children.

An additional set of studies has examined the areas of the brain that are activated when we experience empathy for others. The upshot of this research is that the areas of the brain we would expect to light up when empathy for others is experienced do not when witnessing pain in an individual of a different race.

But social psychology also offers some hope in all of this. In Gordon Allport’s classic contact theory on the positive effects of intergroup contact, we find some answers to what can be done to increase the likelihood that other individuals are perceived as equally human. Five conditions must be present for this to happen according to Allport: 1) We have to have opportunities to cooperate with members of other groups; 2) We have to have the support of major institutions and people in positions of authority that encourage our contact with each other; 3) We have to have equal status and access to resources; and 4) We have to have some common goal that we are all working toward.

All of this goes back to many of the findings we highlighted in “For the Sake of All,” but chief among them how separated we are from one another both physically and psychologically along lines of race in St. Louis. No remedy for our current crisis can be successful if we do not confront that—and confront the conditions of contact theory that remain largely unmet in our region. We can only change these unconscious processes with very conscious work towards equality and interaction.

Adapted from remarks delivered at “Race, Place, and Violence: A University-Wide Dialogue About Michael Brown,” a panel discussion held August 28 at Washington University

  • Frank Wheeler

    Bravo, Dr. Parnell. Your work is impressive and important. Everyone should read “For the Sake of All”–maybe it should be part of mandatory discussions for WU orientation. Awareness is the first step toward action.