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Jennifer Kubota


2023 SPSSI Conference:
Interracial contact shapes perceptions of social injustice during arrests of Black and White civilians by White police officers

Jennifer Kubota, University of Delaware

Video technology has transformed policing, thanks to dash cameras, body cameras, cell phones, and surveillance cameras. Video clips of violent or fatal police encounters are swiftly shared and streamed on social media, enabling communities and witnesses to capture and spread arrests in real time. These videos saturate news and social media, offering apparent objectivity for public and jury judgment. However, these recordings often yield conflicting interpretations. Some view the events as justified, while others perceive them as grave injustices.

Our lab became interested in mapping processes driving divergence in assessing social injustice in policing. This complex question spans various levels of analysis, from structures to individuals, involving interdisciplinary teams. We sought to explore these questions by mapping how individuals make sense of their social world, termed mentalizing or theory of mind. This process allows individuals to infer others' motivations, intentions, and feelings, enabling meaning extraction from social interactions. Neuroscience helps examine mentalizing because researchers can quantify it in real-time with adults without self-reporting.

To explore this, we brought in 69 self-identified White Americans and scanned them. In the scanner, they watched audio-less, real-world videos of perceived White officers arresting perceived Black or White civilians that varied in the rated aggression of the arrest. The participants were young, less politically conservative, more politically liberal, and high in internal motivation to control racial prejudice. Previous research has shown that individuals with these characteristics are more likely to self-report that they care about racial injustice.

We found that although perceived Black civilians were rated as less aggressive than perceived White civilians during the arrests, police officers were rated as most aggressive when arresting perceived Black civilians. Results also revealed that participants rated officers’ use of force as less legitimate when used on perceived Black civilians than perceived White civilians. In addition, we found differences in mentalizing network activity. We found that activity in TPJ was greater when viewing perceived Black (vs. White) civilians involved in more aggressive police arrests. Folks were engaging more mentalizing processes when watching these videos. However, this was amplified for certain folks, who had more meaningful quality contact with friends, caretakers, neighbors, and classmates across their lifespan.

Although we did not find that aggression ratings varied as a function of contact, we did find that ratings of use of force legitimacy did. Individuals with more contact viewed force as even less legitimate when officers arrested a perceived Black compared to a White civilian. Mentalizing recruitment was also greater for folks who had more interracial contact. This means that folks with more contact with Black individuals than White individuals were even more likely to engage mentalizing processes when viewing more aggressive arrests of perceived Black civilians.

What do these findings tell us? These findings indicate that relatively liberal people high in internal motivation to control racial prejudice who may be more attuned to social injustice during arrests may be especially motivated to understand the circumstances surrounding police aggression toward Black civilians. Greater engagement of mentalizing processes may help perceivers determine whether they observe social injustice. These findings also suggest that people with greater intergroup contact may view the use of force on Black civilians as less legitimate and also display greater scrutiny of videos showing aggressive arrests of Black (vs. White) civilians by White officers.

This study represents a starting place, but it has notable caveats. Findings may not generalize across samples, stimuli, or cultures. Also, just because individuals engaged more mentalizing processes does not mean they felt more empathy, viewed the interactions as immoral, or would act to change the situation. So, this work is an important step forward but a starting place.

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