Cast as a Criminal: How Moral Typecasting Leads to Racial Prejudice

  • Brown-Iannuzzi, Jazmin (PI)

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Law enforcement and police use of force is far from evenly distributed. Compared with other demographic groups, Black males are much more likely to be pulled over by police, stopped-and-frisked, and shot to death. Part of this uneven enforcement stems from deep historical and socio-political factors, but psychology has revealed one proximal factor-stereotypes. Stereotypes of Black men include various negative features, such as hostility and aggression-features that also characterize perceptions of criminals. These overlapping feature sets likely prompt suspicion towards Black men, but we suggest that there is a more proximate psychological reason for why Black men are victims of increased scrutiny and police violence-moral typecasting. Typecasting-generally speaking-is the idea that we see others as inhabiting enduring roles. It can be seen clearly in Hollywood films, in which the same actors play the same roles across movies, whether the jokey best-friend, the disorganized sister, or the brooding villain. Typecasting makes it difficult to see others within a role as inhabiting a different role: actors who play the jokey best-friend are seldom cast as the brooding villain, or vice-versa. Moral typecasting is the idea that we see others in enduring moral roles-in particular as moral agents who do immoral deeds (i.e., criminals), or as moral patients who receive moral deeds (i.e., victims). Moral typecasting explains why we find it difficult to blame orphans for misdeeds, and why we find it hard to imagine the suffering of killers. Importantly, typecasting may help to explain aggressive law-enforcement tactics towards Black men. If African-American males are characteristically seen as doers of immoral deeds, then police may be more suspicious of their behavior and more willing to use deadly force. Moral typecasting can be thought of as a specific kind of moral stereotype. Other stereotypes may have morally-relevant content (e.g., hostility is seldom good), but typecasting directly defines the moral character of a target (e.g., a criminal). Like other stereotypes, typecasting should hold particular sway in situations of increased ambiguity. Such ambiguity is often contextual (e.g., is a person waiting for a bus or a drug deal?), but can also be inherent to targets. One source of potential ambiguity is adolescence. Adolescence is a transition between being a child (i.e., a moral patient) and an adult (i.e., a moral agent), and so typecasting should be especially potent within Black adolescents. More concretely, typecasting predicts that law-enforcement should be especially biased against Black male adolescents-a prediction supported by our pilot data. Importantly, situations with greater potential for crime should further strengthen the effects of moral typecasting. When police drive through city streets in the middle of the night, they are vigilant for threat and danger, particularly in dangerous neighborhoods. Contexts of potential crime-and thus suspicion-should therefore lead people to view ambiguous targets as criminals. Combined with often generally-negative Black stereotypes, these contexts should lead to robust perceptions of criminality of Black men. This prediction is also supported by our pilot data. Overall, we have four research questions investigating the predictive and explanatory potential of moral typecasting in law-enforcement racial bias. These questions will be investigated through a series of social-psychological experiments and archival studies, and have to potential to inform both basic understandings of racial prejudice and the applied context of law-enforcement-a pressing social issue.
Effective start/end date6/1/167/31/18


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