Among those working to end racial injustice, a source of both hope and frustration is the strong body of research that psychologists have built on racial bias, discrimination, and intergroup relations.
“We have the science already, but nobody knows about it,” says BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Minneapolis. “And we’re not using it to change the culture around us.”
That science includes insights on the culture of policing, such as a study led by Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, professor of psychology at Stanford University, that reviewed body camera footage and showed that police officers in Oakland, California, treated black people with less respect than whites (Voigt, R., et al., PNAS, Vol. 114, No. 25, 2017).
Such findings can help shape officer training programs, which should include guidance on how to demonstrate respect in a cultural context, says Garrett-Akinsanya, who contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department on issues of bias, critical incident support, and mental health. For example, eye contact is seen as respectful in some cultures and disrespectful in others.
Other well-established psychological principles, such as the concepts of implicit bias and intergroup relations, should also inform the training and evaluation of law enforcement officers. The Minneapolis Police Department requires its officers to complete 21st Century Policing training (PDF, 20MB), which includes a three-day workshop and annual refresher courses. But there is still room for improvement, says Garrett-Akinsanya, particularly through drawing on psychological research on respect, bias, and intergroup relations in a more intentional way. She now works with the department to integrate additional learning, increase accountability, and normalize the use of emotional support for officers.
Participants in the first town hall in the webinar series also emphasized the importance of using psychological science to define terms such as “racial justice” and to break down the many complex factors at play when a racist act is committed.
Last year, APA’s Council of Representatives approved an initiative titled “Hate Hurts: A Public Education Campaign to Address and Eradicate Racism, Discrimination and Hate,” introduced by Garrett-Akinsanya, J. Bruce Overmier, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, Dina Birman, PhD, of the University of Miami, and former APA President James Bray, PhD. The campaign’s work group is cataloguing and distributing literature and tools on racial bias to psychologists in a variety of contexts, including instructors, clinicians, and school and organizational psychologists.
“Psychologists in the field need ammunition to fight racism,” Garrett-Akinsanya says. “And psychology has those answers.”