What Would You Do?: Racism in America

The Macrae experiment that we read in class this week, (Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox) found that the use of stereotypes is actually a cognitive tool our brain uses. In the study, whenever a stereotype label was present (regardless of whether the stereotype label was present consciously or unconsciously) participants remembered more stereotype consistent words and performed better on the additional task than participants who were not provided with a stereotype label. According to these findings, stereotypes are strategic tools used to enhance cognitive performance, so when the the stereotype is present we are able to effectively process other information at the same time. But what happens when these stereotypes take on a negative connotation?

An ABC program set up a social situation to see how people would react to a crime being committed based on the offender’s race. First, 3 white teenage boys were shown destroying and vandalizing a car in a public park. The boys continued spray painting, kicking and jumping on the car for hours, and in all that time only one person called the police. Most of the people who walked by didn’t even pay attention to the boys, 2 women passing even made jokes to the boys about what they were doing. And by the end of the day one man angrily intervened to stop the boys. To the shows surprise, two additional calls were made to the police-but not about the boys vandalizing the car. A man called the police twice reporting a parked car with 3 black teenage boys inside who according to the caller, “looked like they were possibly getting ready to rob somebody.” What were these boys doing? Sleeping. So the group of sleeping black teens raised more alarm to people in the park than the group of white teens creating a scene and destroying a car.

After this happened, ABC decided to recreate the situation but this time they replaced the 3 white teenagers with 3 black teenage boys. Within minutes of beginning to vandalize the car, people began quietly placing 9-1-1 calls from a distance. By the end of the day, a total of 10 phone calls were made to the police reporting the boys and much more people stepped in to intervene on the situation. When ABC interviewed these people many expressed that they were wary of confrontation and the possible dangers of stepping in.

When witnesses in the park were passing by they obviously had very different reactions to the black teenagers than they did when viewing the white teenagers wreck the car. When the bystanders saw the white boys vandalizing the car they most likely stereotyped them as wild teenage boys who were being loud, and rebellious. But when they people in the park saw the black boys, they stereotyped them as criminals who were dangerous and aggressive. Even though the two groups of boys were doing the exact same thing, the stereotypes and stereotype consistent traits lead to very different reactions. And then there is also the example of the call reporting the three black boys sleeping in the car. These boys had nothing to do with the attention grabbing social experiment being conducted yet these boys got accused of being potential robbers. Although the use of labels and categorization are effective tools to enhance cognitive processes, this video directly shows that stereotypes take on a different role when prejudice and discrimination are added to the equation.

2 thoughts on “What Would You Do?: Racism in America”

  1. This video was so interesting. It really shows how the public reacts to certain situations. I was completely shocked to see that more people called 911 on a group of Black kids sleeping in a car than White kids actually vandalizing somebody’s private property. The Black kids were sleeping, and they were seen as more of a disturbance! I think that this was a really important thing for people to see. I am not sure that many people would believe this would happen without actually seeing it occur. I understand that stereotypes occur and it’s a natural reaction for the human brain, but I would have never expected to see something as disturbing as this. I think shows like this are important because they show how prevalent racism still is today.

    • I definitely agree with you. I was really happy to see this program on a major network show such a relevant issue. There is actually a different video from this program that sets up a similar situation dealing with race-based discrimination. I think showing a social experiment like this displays the realities of every day racism and can be very eye opening to someone who does not think racism exists today.

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