Are the police more likely to target blacks? – Mental Health Matters |

Are the police more likely to target blacks? – Mental Health Matters

Andrew Whyman, MD
Special to the Sun-Bonanza

Four weeks ago I wrote a column about Sandra Bland, the single black woman who killed herself in jail three days after being incarcerated for what began as a minor lane change violation.

In that column I said that, “Ms. Bland likely had a history of emotional issues,” one of which was that, “she was a black woman in America,” and that this factor, taken together with four others, suggested “emotional fragility.”

The “black woman in America” comment elicited more response than any other part of the column. Said one person, paraphrasing, “I wish you would just focus on mental illness issues, and not inject your liberal politics.”

Said another, “Police don’t target blacks. Black on black crime is the biggest issue, and, if you are respectful, you need have no fear of the police.”

Interesting feedback, all, and it takes me to several places.

I was a psychiatrist for 40 years; my basic precept, “Do what works for the patient.”

For me that meant that the biomedical model of emotional problems was too confining. Most of my patients simply didn’t respond to being given a psychiatric diagnosis and then treated with medications.

Rather, they had a host of social, psychological, cultural and situational factors, that, together, created emotional issues; understanding and addressing them was at the core of therapy.

Socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity all played a role. So, I said that being a “black woman in America” was a risk factor for emotional fragility.

But the equation is complicated. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration remarks that, “Communities of color tend to experience a greater burden of mental and substance abuse disorders due to poor access to care; inappropriate care; and higher social, environmental, and economic risk factors.”

It’s not that black women in America are constitutionally more likely to suffer mental illness, but rather that social, psychological and cultural burdens increase their risk of developing problems.

The U.S. Office of Minority Health opines that: 1. Adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. 2. Adult blacks living below poverty are 2-3 times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those above poverty. 3. Adult blacks are more likely to report sadness, helplessness, and worthlessness than adult whites.

An article in the Archives of General Psychiatry (2007) notes that, “Blacks are more likely to rate their depression as very severe and disabling.”

The U.S. Department of Minority Health Services states that the number of symptoms of emotional disorders tends to be higher among minorities. Also, that blacks with mental health diagnoses are more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.

The U.S. Sentencing Project notes that people of color, particularly black males, face longer sentences than their white non-Hispanic counterparts for similar crimes.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that minorities suffer greater mental disability than whites, not because their problems are inherently more severe, but because they get less care and poorer quality of care.

The reasons for such disparities are diverse, but one of them is surely subconscious racial bias.

This problem is brilliantly demonstrated in a series of research experiments conducted by Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt.

In one study, students looking at a screen were shown subliminal pictures of black or white faces. Students who unknowingly saw black faces were much quicker to identify the next blurring image as a gun or knife than students who saw white faces. For law enforcement, a profession of split-second decisions, the study implications are powerful.

In another study, Eberhardt analyzed 44 capital murder cases in Philadelphia involving white victims and black defendants. The defendants faces were than independently rated as to how stereotypically black they appeared. The defendants rated most stereotypically black were twice as likely to receive a death sentence. The conclusion: “Black defendants appeared to be punished in proportion to the blackness of their features.”

Much of this research focuses on the real world consequences of such bias: In one study, both black and white police were more likely to mistakenly identify black faces as criminals than white faces; In another, people — black and white — showed more support for life sentences for juveniles when the case involved a black defendant versus a white defendant.

Stanford professor Hazel Marcus says that Eberhardt has elegantly demonstrated that being the target of racial stereotyping can be harmful if not life threatening. 

Eberhardt now works with police departments in California to develop statewide training on implicit racial bias. Says Eberhardt, “All over this country, black people are still finding themselves in situations where they feel the state does not fully protect them.”

So, you decide. Are black people in America more likely to suffer emotional fragility? Are the police more likely to target blacks? Does black on black violence mean there is no racial bias?

And, circling back to Ms. Bland, did racial bias contribute to her death?

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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