The residents of Ferguson, Missouri have long accused the police department of racial profiling and making decisions based solely on race. White people often get defensive when accused of being "racist" or "prejudiced." And black people claim it is a very real issue despite the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement. What does the research say about the issue? Do white people have a reason to be defensive? Do black people have a legitimate concern? The research may shock you. We simply don't realize how prejudiced we are, by nature.

What is racial profiling?

Racial profiling refers to the "use of an individuals race or ethnicity by law enforcement personnel as a key factor on whether or not to engage in enforcement." This practice is often referred to as "driving while black." The New York Police Department has come under heavy fire for its controversial "stop and frisk" policy that has since been determined as unconstitutional. Police were given the authority to stop and search any person appearing "suspicious." The vast majority of individuals stopped were black (watch a short clip on stop and frisk here). Why does racial profiling occur?

Racism runs brain deep

I am absolutely convinced most people do not want to be racist; however, we all are prejudiced to a certain degree. First let me distinguish the difference between prejudice and racism. Prejudice refers to a preconceived negative judgment about a group or people. In short, prejudice is an attitude or belief, not behavior that follows an attitude of belief; this is an affective experience, not an overt behavior.

A prejudice is supported by stereotypes about a given race or group of people. Regardless of the negative connotation that the word stereotype carries with it, stereotypes help us make sense of the world around us. Our brain interprets the world around us through stereotypes and "schemas."

Schemas essentially allow the brain to categorize information into groups. When meeting a person your brain will use a schema to categorize that said person (sex, race, age). This is an automatic response that occurs in our brain with thinking about it. Your brain will search its vast database of information to make sense of the interaction. But the brain will often use shortcuts to process information such as the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind. The brain will often access the most recent example of an interaction or thought about a given race or group of people.

If you have never had an experience with a person from a different race, the brain may react out of fear, initially. Don't worry, that is a completely natural phenomenon created by the brain's adaptations over the course of time. The brain interprets a given set of information quickly to determine whether or not the situation merits a response from the Limbic System. A portion of the Limbic System, the amygdala, is largely responsible for the fight of flight response. The brain naturally invokes a sense of fear when an interaction takes place with something or someone different than the norm. Imagine never having an interaction with a North Korean citizen before. Given all of the negative publicity about North Korea, your brain will likely utilize the "availability heuristic" to determine that the person may be inherently dangerous. Your first reaction may be that of fear.

What comes to mind when you think of the following: gang member, criminal, bank robber, scam artist, murderer, thief, or rapist? Now what comes to your mind when you think of the following: leader, politician, doctor, lawyer, mayor, humanitarian, or role model. The first category that came to mind in the first subset is probably race? What about the second subset? Did a specific person come to mind or race? Your answer probably depends on your ethnicity.

Our brain is built to categorize but it does not mean you are racist, it just means you have to overcome natural thought progressions that may be categorically false. Negative images constantly inundating you inevitably influence your reaction to the above subsets. When you think of gangs you probably do not think of the cartels (Mexican), you probably think of inner city gangs (black). What you see in the media or hear on the radio will influence how you categorize people. When you think of a scam artist, do you think of Bernie Madoff (white) or Jordan Belfort (white)? Or do you think of a black person? Your brain automatically uses a schema that has been developed by your brains exposure to information you consume thorough media, books, the internet, and other sources of information. Does media representation actually represent reality? And before you start thinking about crime and race, don't forget about the nature of racial profiling, poverty, and other variables which contribute to levels of crime in a given population.

A recent study published by Nature Neuroscience found that white males experience mental capacity decreases after an interaction with a black male. This is even true for participants who did not display a great deal of prejudice. Researchers found that the biased subjects took longer to associate positive traits with blacks and negative traits with whites. Brain scans taken while subjects viewed photographs of black people showed increased activity in the right dorsolateral prefontal cortex. This portion of the brain is largely responsible for linking thoughts and behaviors. The head researcher, Jennifer Richeson, notes the reason for the reason for the increased activity in that portion of the brain is due to the fact that "Individuals perform worse on certain cognitive tasks because they were attempting to control their thoughts, behavior and emotions during the interaction."

Additional research supports the notion that our society is proliferated with "implicit prejudice" and still has a major problem with explicit racism. Neuroscientist, David Amodio, has found that even people who claim that prejudice and racism are both wrong (attitude) still have trouble actually acting upon that belief when given a behavioral measure (responding to pictures of black people). Additional implicit prejudice research supports the notion that most white and asian people succumb to some form of implicit prejudice (read more here).

What is racism?

Racism is not a belief contrary to popular misconception. Racism refers to prejudicial attitudes and consequential discriminatory behavior toward a given race. It is entirely possible to hold a negative stereotype but not be racist. Racism refers to acting on a certain belief or thought process. The sad reality is that racism often occurs without one even knowing they are acting in a racist manner. Watch this video here that explores how racist and discriminatory a group of random people act. Secret cameras were set up to determine how people would react to people of different races trying to steal a bike. Keep in mind that all parties were dressed in similar attire. For the most part, a white male was not interfered with even after he stated he was stealing the bike. A young black male immediately garnered significant attention and the police were almost immediately called. This video will absolutely shock you (video here).

What can we do about racism?

Having stereotypical thoughts and prejudicial attitudes can develop quickly and often unnoticed. Often times, we can't help some of the deep rooted attitudes that influence thought patterns. It takes time and experience to change thought patterns that have been developed over a long period of time. But racism is always a choice.

Let's all stop pretending that racism and prejudice is not a problem. But lets also stop pretending that only one race is implicated. We ALL have some degree of prejudice. The first step in fighting racism is acknowledging that it's a problem. Don't feel guilty and don't get defensive. Evaluate your attitudes, beliefs, and carefully choose how you act on such belief systems. How would you feel if you were constantly judged because of the color of your skin? How would you like to be the target of police activity just because of the color of your skin? Really, racial profiling is a form of institutional racism. And it is unequivocally wrong.

To people of all races: we are all prejudiced and biased in some form or fashion. The best way to solve the problem is to acknowledge we are all prejudiced and work together to resolve the issues. Avoid getting too personal about it and instead understand that prejudice, to some degree, is caused by how the brain organizes and interprets information. NONE of us can escape that reality. Don't fight with each other, fight against the problem together. Racism is more than skin deep, it is brain deep and we are all apart of that sad but changeable reality.

Image credit: University of Minnesota