Seeing Contention in Black and White: Protest and Protest Policing

By Darick Ritter.

By Christian Davenport

By Darick Ritter.
By Darick Ritter.

How does the police react to situations when protestors are of one ethnicity as opposed to another? In a Washington Post/Monkey Cage blog entitled “Who Protests Determines How Police Respond,” this question is discussed referencing an earlier article of mine with Sarah Soule and David Armstrong entitled “Protesting While Black?” The blog post notes that American police are much more aggressive and violent when confronting black protestors – regardless of what tactics the protestors employ, how many people show up, as well as what the protests are about. In other words, when blacks protest, they are much more likely to get their asses kicked by a Darth Vader dressed police officer, be hit with a fire hose or some tear gas.

While useful in providing some insights into what takes place when protestors and police square off, this research only concerned the police and what they would do under specific circumstances. The viewing public (i.e., observers or most of us) is also involved in the process. We do not just sit back passively watching what happens without developing opinions, drawing conclusions and/or potentially taking action. Rather, what we see prompts us to see certain things, draw certain conclusions and potentially take (or not take) certain actions.

But how does the interaction between police and protestors potentially influence us and in what manner? Existing research did not provide much insight on this question and thus we started to think about it. For example, we began to wonder: does it matter precisely who is doing what to whom? Does the fact that the protestors are black and police are white influence how observers read/see/comprehend what is taking place? What if the protestors were white and the police were black? How about if protestors and police were of the same race? Additional thought made us also wonder about the viewer as well. For example, what if the observer was white? Or, black? Would that influence what was read/seen/comprehended and in what way? In some unpublished research with Rose McDermott (Brown University) and David Armstrong (University of Wisconsin), we investigated this topic with an experiment.

In our view, observers observe police as well as protestor activity when making evaluations about what is going on, and they are likely to perceive as “right” or “just” those actors who are more like themselves. So, if a white person sees white protestors and black police, they are more likely to see the protestors as generally on the right side of the conflict. Similarly, if a black person sees the same situation, they are more likely to side with the police. This is consistent with what previous research calls a racial “coalitional” logic where individuals perceive themselves as having greater affinity with their own racial group and generally siding with them in different scenarios because it is believed that they are more likely to be given a fair shot and treated well by their own. Note: this is all regardless of what role they play in contentious politics (e.g., whether one’s ethnic group constitutes the police or protesters) or what is at issue (e.g., wages, equality, war, human rights violations).

We tested our claim with original data from a nationally-representative, embedded survey experiment of black and white US citizens. The survey experiment manipulated the race of police and protesters and included respondents of different races. We set up the experiment so that every possible combination of police-protestor ethnicity was evaluated with black and white respondents. For example, we considered where police were white and protestors were black as in Ferguson. We also considered where police were black and protestors were white, where police were white and protestors were white as well as where police were black and protestors were black. These scenarios were considered for both black and white respondents. Across the various combinations above we basically asked who was to blame for what transpired (i.e., the escalation of the conflict).

What do we find? Well, when both protestors and police are the same ethnicity (e.g., when both the protestors and police are white or both the protestors and police are black), African American respondents are much less likely to blame protestors for what transpires than whites respondents who are a bit more likely to blame them. This showed that perhaps because of the historical situation within which American blacks have found themselves, they are generally more likely to side with those engaging in protest activities – when race is essentially taken out of the equation and both police as well as protestors are of the same race. The finding that proves to be most informative regarding Ferguson is the one we get when protestors are black and police are white. In this situation, we find that African Americans are much less likely to blame the black protestors for what transpires. In contrast, whites are less likely to blame the white police. Each race basically sees their racial counterpart as being less blameworthy for the escalated conflict.

The implications of this research for the current situation in Ferguson are interesting and in different ways.

First, although both whites and African Americans are observing the same thing on TV, radio, the internet and social media, they are seeing (or, interpreting) very different things and also drawing divergent conclusions. Elsewhere I argue that blacks and whites might be consuming different sources of information (which would makes things even worse in terms of creating different perceptions) but this is a different matter entirely as the same experiment was given to everyone.

Second, blacks being sympathetic to protestors and whites being sympathetic to police will likely not facilitate an amicable resolution to the situation. As a result, any legal cases or public forums are likely to fan the flames of division not unification.

Third, to address what happened and why, as well as what should be done next, the key is to be as open as possible about the perceptual differences noted above. We then need to work from that point of departure to a discussion of police-citizen interactions, black-white interactions, black as opposed to white perceptions, police power, racial discrimination (across housing, policing, poverty and employment). Indeed, while rooted in distinct perceptions of what protestors and police do, our research findings actually push us toward acknowledging differences in what we see but moving toward acknowledging similarities in actual problems. For example, although individuals might blame police and protestors in accordance to what they did during the riot/rebellion/protest, all might be able to agree that the population was largely black, the police and government was largely white and that poverty as well as unemployment are generally high. Perception should not be allowed to divide people but it should be identified, discussed and then contextualized.

  1. Do you know of a similar experiment where protesters’ political affiliations have been taken into account? I would be interested how right-wing as to left-wing protesters perceive police action (also depending on how ‘just’ they reckon the state force to be).

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