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Building a Racially Just Society: Psychological Insights

Michael Brown’s tragic death is a salient reminder that the United States is still far from being a racially just and equitable society.

(Photo: Light Brigading)

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Authors Note. As three white psychologists, we offer this brief essay with the awareness that our perspective is necessarily limited by our lived experience as members of the privileged racial class. Through our many years of work as both psychologists and activists, we know first-hand how contentious and fraught racial justice discussions and efforts can be, even among colleagues and within organizations firmly committed to progressive social change. We share the essay below with the recognition that, to varying degrees, everyone is diminished by racism and racist institutions, and in the hope that this psychology-focused analysis may encourage constructive discussion and much needed action toward a racially just society.

This past August’s police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen, temporarily brought the attention of the entire nation to Ferguson, Missouri. The days and weeks that immediately followed witnessed prayer vigils; peaceful protests; sporadic episodes of minor violence and property damage; a heightened (and, in the eyes of many, overblown) law enforcement presence with armored trucks, riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets; a statement by President Obama from the White House; and a visit to the St. Louis suburb by Attorney General Eric Holder. Now, three months later, Ferguson residents wait anxiously for the anticipated announcement of whether a federal grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fired the gun that struck down Brown.

Whatever the outcome and immediate aftermath of those deliberations, Michael Brown’s tragic death, the anguish of his family, and the turmoil within his community are all salient reminders that the United States is still far from being a racially just and equitable society.[1] These failings are broad and deep. They are reflected in the longstanding and seemingly intractable realities of unequal treatment, circumstance, and opportunity for African Americans – and for other communities of color. And they pose a difficult yet increasingly urgent challenge[2] – not only in regard to seeking justice for Michael Brown, but also in working to redress the widespread and daily harms associated with race-based inequities in law enforcement and other areas.

Deeply Disturbing Realities

The ugly and not-so-distant history of slavery, of post-emancipation Jim Crow laws and lynchings, and of legalized discrimination and segregation all cast a long shadow.[3] Indeed earlier this year a United Nations committee concluded that racial and ethnic discrimination – including police brutality – remain persistent and pervasive problems in the United States.[4] A half-century after the civil rights movement’s hard-earned victories in the face of widespread repressive opposition, racial disparities continue to be striking and sobering.

African Americans live in poverty at rates almost three times those of whites;[5] this difference is even greater when specifically comparing the percentages of children living in areas of concentrated poverty.[6] White median household income is nearly double that of African Americans,[7] and the median wealth of white households is twenty times greater.[8] African Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of their white counterparts[9] and their life expectancy is approximately five years less.[10] Today, sixty years after the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, the early gains in the desegregation of U.S. schools have largely disappeared[11] and the racial gap in college graduation rates has not narrowed.[12]

Deeply troubling race-based imbalances are also present throughout our criminal justice system. Compared to white Americans, African Americans are much more likely to be the target of “stop and frisk” operations and related racial profiling tactics by law enforcement;[13] to be arrested for offenses such as selling illegal drugs (even though their white counterparts engage in comparable criminal activities just as often);[14] and to receive longer average prison sentences for identical offenses.[15] Altogether, African American men are incarcerated at rates more than six times greater than white men,[16] with one-third of all African American males likely to be imprisoned sometime during their lives. For white males the corresponding figure is only one in seventeen.[17]

These inequities persist at an institutional level even as explicitly racist beliefs and overtly racial discrimination have become increasingly taboo. Racial injustices remain closely related to economic and educational disadvantages, disadvantages that are disproportionately borne by African-Americans – largely because centuries-old institutions of racial oppression have not received sufficient structural redress. In our economic system, many African Americans and other people of color are denied desirable employment opportunities or even jobs that pay a living wage. In our education system, schools in deeply segregated urban neighborhoods are underfunded and overcrowded, and higher education is unaffordable for most students. Rather than increasing safety, zero tolerance policies have maintained and exacerbated a “school-to-prison pipeline” that ensnares a disproportionate number of young people of color.[18]

Psychological Influences

Psychology plays an important role in the social forces perpetuating individual and institutional racism. Because of the link between race and class, the psychological mechanisms that perpetuate class injustices also tend to perpetuate racial injustices. The widespread preference to see the world as just, for instance, leads people to embrace narratives that blame those who struggle with socioeconomic disadvantages – disproportionately people of color in the U.S.[19] – for their own plight. This perception then dampens the popular will to support a role for elected governments in setting reasonable minimum standards of economic rights, fostering a political culture that greatly harms working families of all races.

Other psychological mechanisms relatively independent of class also reinforce racist attitudes and actions. Negative cultural stereotypes of African Americans are pervasive and entrenched, in part because of a psychological inclination to unconsciously legitimize status quo disparities.[20] Even when these stereotypes are overtly rejected, they often persist at the level of implicit biases, which by definition are “activated involuntarily, unconsciously, and without one’s awareness or intentional control.”[21] These biases not only serve as the foundation for intentional expressions of prejudice and racial violence but also for unintended yet harmful micro-aggressions,[22] which often cast African Americans as deserving of fear, distrust, and disrespect. Too often, inaccurate and biased news reports and media portrayals further serve to reinforce perceived differences of the racial “other.” At the same time, stresses associated with disproportionate suffering from class injustices, with being treated as “second-class” citizens, and with being targets of discrimination increase the likelihood of negative physical and psychological health outcomes for African American children and adults.[23][24][25]

The structural racism that permeates our society is also both a product of and a contributor to other deep-seated and largely unconscious individual psychological processes such as moral disengagement and moral exclusion. Members of one group don’t just adopt stereotypes and prejudices and engage in hostile and discriminatory ways against members of another group. They often also develop ways of reasoning that allow them to behave harmfully towards members of the other group without feeling guilt or shame. Mechanisms of moral disengagement such as dehumanizing the other, blaming victims for one’s aggression against them, minimizing the consequences of one’s harmful behaviors, or reframing harm in a positive light (e.g., freeing a community of its dangerous elements) allow people to behave inhumanely and still view themselves as moral individuals.[26] Moral exclusion is a related set of cognitive processes whereby members of other groups are viewed as belonging outside the prevailing scope of justice. In this way they are deemed as appropriately excludable from concerns with moral and human rights considerations, and as not deserving of protections from a wide variety of harms, ranging from deprivation and exploitation to genocide.[27]

Meanwhile, so-called “colorblindness”[28] – often proposed as a solution to racial injustice – can, in practice, make people of color “invisible” and contribute to maintaining existing racial inequities by overlooking or denying structural injustices and the pervasive unearned advantages and privileges[29] typically afforded to those who are white[30] in the United States. Not surprisingly, given that white Americans have the privilege of shutting themselves off from the realities of racial inequality, a large gulf exists between African Americans and white Americans in perceptions of the extent to which equal justice prevails in the United States today.[31] And while white Americans tend to emphasize how much better off African Americans are now than they once were, African Americans are more inclined to focus on how much further we still need to go to achieve racial equality.[32]

Paths to Progress

It is within this social, political, and psychological context that we believe the outrage and despair engendered by manifestations of racial injustice are best understood. Conquering the racism and racial inequities so deeply embedded in U.S. history and institutions will require serious and sustained commitment by individuals, organizations, communities, and our nation as a whole.[33] That commitment will need to be multifaceted: to listen deeply to the experience of those who suffer most from racism and racial injustice; to learn about and acknowledge our own individual and collective contributions to maintaining the oppression of racism in all its societal manifestations; to be open to transforming our understanding of the system of racism and what keeps it in place; and to be ready to make choices in many aspects of our lives that will help reduce racism and racial injustice.

At the individual level, learning more about the hardships, abuses, accomplishments, and resilience that characterize the long struggle against racial injustice can provide a pathway to better understanding the current circumstances, adversities, and structural violence that need to be overcome.[34] Working to recognize and transcend our own biases is also essential; for some, this may begin by participating in challenging conversations about race, even when those interactions are uncomfortable. It is also important for all of us – including those in positions of influence and advantage – to demonstrate solidarity with the direct victims of racial injustice through concrete engagement in advocacy and other forms of collaboration.

In many workplaces and volunteer organizations, there is a need for a stronger commitment to specific actions aimed at increasing diversity and promoting respect for differences, especially in the ranks of leadership. Where appropriate, public service and other organizations – including police departments[35] – should adopt training programs that demonstrate how contemporary racism operates, including how implicit bias works and how it might be consciously overridden. Policies and procedures assuring that instances of workplace racism and discrimination are recognized, taken seriously, and addressed directly should be instituted as well. In some contexts, sustained, dialogue-driven learning opportunities can be more effective than strictly punitive responses in reducing racist and discriminatory behavior and building a culture of acceptance and mutual respect. In our schools, teachers and other educators should receive support[36] in developing the skills and educational materials necessary to make both historical and contemporary racial injustice an integral part of the curriculum and restorative justice a first option when disciplinary problems arise.

When law enforcement personnel kill unarmed black teenagers or commit other violence that punctuates the daily oppression suffered in African American communities, they should be held accountable. To the extent that attempts to enforce this accountability fall short, as they too often do, there are other ways to lay the foundation for more just interactions in the future. Community-wide restorative dialogue initiatives can be effective in establishing trust and connection when one party has inflicted violence on another. Independent of criminal proceedings, these approaches create conditions where all those impacted have an opportunity to express themselves fully and honestly in a way that others can truly hear and understand. While some types of harm inflict individual and collective wounds that are irreparable, such interventions can interrupt the cycle of violence, turn destructive anger into constructive energy, and lead to both individual and community healing and significant structural reforms, including in policing practices and policies.[37]

As a nation, we must all commit to joining together to transform the entrenched systems that, almost invisibly at times, obstruct progress toward racial equality. Toward that end, genuine intercultural, pluralistic living – rooted in horizontal, intentional, and cooperative engagement – can help to further foster respect and empathy across boundaries that too often divide people from each other. But fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was signed and Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, it is clear that much work remains to be done. The urgency is undeniable. Building a more racially just society is the shared responsibility of all of us.

The authors wish to thank Derek Allen, Jamaal Bell, Trudy Bond, Amira N. Davis, Marilyn Glater, Ian Hansen, Brian Jones, Leslie King, Kimberly E. Walker, and Lawanda Wallace for valuable discussions and editing assistance.

A PDF version of this essay is available.



[2] We use the term “African American” as a way to both acknowledge the unique history of trauma and oppression experienced by individuals who were taken from Africa and brought to America as slaves and highlight the continued disparities and inequalities faced by generations descending from this population. Our linguistic choice is not intended to suggest that we value any less the histories, perspectives, and contributions of those who prefer to self-identify differently. As well, we recognize that other people of color and members of marginalized groups are also disproportionately subject to mistreatment in the United States.




























[30] There are also privileges associated with many other characteristics, including being male, being Christian, being heterosexual, and being able-bodied, but our focus here is on race.






[36] Ideally, this support would be in the form of ongoing, in-person learning and consultation with a racially and ideologically diverse group of community members and scholars.


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