How Psychology Explains the Tamir Rice Shooting

People attach violent stereotypes to images of black boys as young as 5 years old, new research finds.

Image AP Photo/Tony Dejak
A photo of Tamir Rice rests on the ground near a memorial outside a recreation center Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

On a Sunday in November 2014, a Cleveland man dialed 911 to report that a young black boy—“probably a juvenile”—was brandishing a gun around in the park near him. “It’s probably fake, but it’s scaring the shit out of me,” the caller said on the phone. The officer who responded fatally shot the subject of the 911 call within seconds of arriving. The boy, it turned out, was 11-year-old; and his gun was just a toy.

A year later, a grand jury decided not to charge the officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice. Here’s Timothy J. McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, who advised the jury not to bring criminal charges, via The New York Times:

Mr. McGinty said the fatal encounter had been a tragedy and a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications.” But he said that enhancement of video from the scene had made it “indisputable” that Tamir, who was black, was drawing the pellet gun from his waistband when he was shot, either to hand it over to the officers or to show them that it was not a real firearm. He said that there was no reason for the officers to know that, and that the officer who fired, Timothy Loehmann, had a reason to fear for his life.

In other words, Loehmann (just like the man who called 911) perceived an 11-year old black boy with a toy gun as an existential threat. Why? Well, in part, it’s because implicit biases that cause people to associate adult black men with stereotypes of violence also extend to black boys—even those as young as 5 years old, new research published in Psychological Science finds.

“Our findings suggest that, although young children are typically viewed as harmless and innocent, seeing faces of five-year-old Black boys appears to trigger thoughts of guns and violence,” said Andrew Todd, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa, in a press release.

For their study, Todd and colleagues Kelsey Thiem and Rebecca Neel conducted a series of experiences similar to the implicit bias detection test. In the first one, 64 white college students were shown two images in quick succession. The first, which the participants were told to ignore, showed the face of a black or white child; the second showed either a gun or a toy (like a rattle). The participants were then asked to identify the object in the second image.

As per the results, study participants were quicker in correctly identifying the second image as a gun after being flashed the image of a young black boy. They also tended to wrongly label the image of toy as a gun more frequently after looking at a picture of a young black boy. Meanwhile, participants were more likely to wrongly categorize the second image of a gun as a toy after being shown a young white boy.

In two subsequent tests, researches made a few small but significant tweaks. The first image presented was either that of a black or white adult or a child; the second showed a gun or a non-threatening object, like a tool. The results this time—one trial with 63 white college participants, a second with 88—showed that participants associated black faces with guns and white ones with non-threatening objects, regardless of age.

In a fourth and final experiment, the researchers found that 82 study participants connected words like “violent,” “dangerous,” “hostile,” and “aggressive,” more strongly with images of black boys than white ones. Here’s how Todd and his colleagues conclude, via the paper:  

The four experiments provided converging evidence that brief presentations of Black male faces—whether of adults or children—primed the detection of threatening objects (i.e., guns) and increased accessibility of threat-related words. Furthermore, these racial biases were driven entirely by differences in automatic processing; indeed, we found no differences in estimates of controlled processing. The collective findings, therefore, support the hypothesis that youth sustains, rather than attenuates, race-based threat associations.

In other words, negative attitudes towards certain races are deeply ingrained in the way our mind processes the world, and inform split-second judgments. Luckily, research suggests that we can slowly and painstakingly reprogram ourselves. But first we have to acknowledge that our biases exist.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.