The Science Behind Why White People Call Police on Black People for Doing Ordinary Things
This summer, repeated incidents of white people calling authorities on Black people for doing ordinary things have been captured on video, going viral on social media. From Permit Patty to License Plate Linda — the 911 calls seem to be getting out of hand.
“White communities feel the need to actually police and I mean literally involve the police in managing a dynamic that they think is going to go wrong,” Alexis McGill Johnson told DiversityInc. “People feel empowered to use tax dollars to police their anxiety.”
McGill Johnson is the executive director and co-founder of Perception Institute, a consortium of social psychologists and strategists who translate mind science research on race, gender and ethnicity.
In terms of research, McGill Johnson mentions three different phenomena at play.
“The first is implicit bias, which many of us understand to be our brain’s automatic processing of negative stereotypes,” she said. “It’s largely unconscious living in the back of our brains.
“The other phenomena is racial anxiety, which is our brain-stress response when we engage in cross-racial interactions.
“It’s literally a stress response that activates the rest of our physiology so our heart rate increases our respiratory rate increases, cortisol shoots out that helps us navigate and manage this stress,” she said.
Alexis McGill JohnsonPerception Institute
“For people of color, our concern is that we’re on guard for discrimination coming toward us. And for whites, the concern is ‘Whatever I’m about to say it may be landing in a way where the person perceives me as racist.’
“So they double down because they don’t want to admit a particular bias or slant.”
The third phenomena she mentioned is called racial threat, which is heightening in the U.S. as non-Hispanic whites are shrinking in population, while all other racial and ethnic groups grew between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017, according to 2017 estimates released from the U.S. Census Bureau in June.
“Racial threat is when you fear your racial group will lose status,” McGill Johnson said.
“It could be economic status, it could be political status; it could be social status. The racial threat becomes very real and the need to want your group to fare well is a natural impulse. They are basic fight or flight group dynamics.”
McGill Johnson, a graduate of Princeton and Yale and frequent commentator on CNN and MSNBC, said the current political climate is filled with racial threat.
“The rhetoric that has come out of the conversations of this administration, which media channels have propagated, is essentially one of racial threat and it is one of permission to police the racial threat,” she said.
“Every study suggests that what allowed President Trump to gain momentum [in the election] was not the economy,” she said. “The economy was actually growing and continued on a growing trend.”
Racial anxiety that was prompted by racial threat was a major factor that motivated Trump’s base.
“The level of xenophobia and racism and explicit bias that’s being propagated to provoke racial anxiety and racial threat is really, really powerful,” McGill Johnson said.
In regard to white people calling 911 on Black people, she said the individual incidences could be manifestations of the racial threat or it could also be “a sense of feeling empowered to challenge people who are perceived not to belong because the climate has given people cover to do so.”
McGill Johnson said that as the incidents continue, “growing in our public consciousness,” we might also continue to see law enforcement push back against the caller.
She brought up the incident in Sterling, Va., this week when a man called police after he was knocked to the floor following a hard screen during a basketball game.
“What’s so interesting in the story to me is how the police were like ‘This is ridiculous. I can’t believe you are calling me,'” McGill Johnson said.
She added that police are pushing back and saying, “You don’t get to define who our broad community is. We police for everybody and we’re going to take back our ability to do our job.
“And by the way, we’re going to give you a consequence so that you stop wasting our time when we need to be focusing on real policing.”