The Vicious Cycle of Unequal Treatment

Critics of Black Lives Matter often argue that black Americans are more likely to commit crimes than white Americans, and that this explains why police are more likely to enter into an interaction with black suspects at a higher level of suspicion and aggression.

Statistically, it’s true that African-Americans are disproportionately represented at all stages of the criminal process; on a per-capita basis, it’s probably true that more violent crimes are committed by blacks than by whites. It’s difficult to state this definitively because, the farther you work through the criminal justice system (through arrest, through conviction, through imprisonment), the more disproportionate the numbers become. But, for the sake of discussion, let us temporarily accept the claim that blacks are more likely to commit violent crimes than whites are.

There would be a few reasons for this: One is that blacks are more likely to be poor, for instance, or undereducated. The rich and the well-educated are not necessarily less likely to commit crimes, but those crimes are more likely to be “white collar” crimes where victims are bank accounts, computer systems, and water tables, and victims are not physically assaulted individually.

Another reason is based on how all humans respond when treated unfairly.


Researchers Sarah Bronson and Frans B. M. de Waal showed that capuchin monkeys who are given unequal rewards display unequal reactions. Both monkeys were given the same task: Return a pebble that the researcher gives them. One monkey was given a cucumber, and the other a grape. The first monkey’s reaction to this was instant, acute, and violent: She throws the cucumber piece at the researcher and tries to tear her way out of the cage.

Bronson and de Waal refer to this “Social Inequity Aversion” and present it in terms of unequal pay concerns: The monkey was happy with the cucumber until she learned that her colleague was getting grapes. Their conclusions are not without its critics, such as Joseph Heinrich’s rebuttal, also in Nature. Heinrich’s argument is, in part, that humans are not monkeys.

That much is true: Humans are not monkeys. Our thoughts are much more complex. At the same time, though, it is difficult to not be at least swayed by the intensity of the monkey’s reaction to the unequal treatment. There is barely a moment of thought before the monkey turns violent.

Humans, in contrast, have many moments of thought before we turn violent.


In court, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin shortly before he was shot, testified that Martin had complained to her of being followed by a suspicious white man (a “creepy cracker”) before the altercation. This conversation went on for a few minutes, during which Martin felt increasingly hunted. If we believe the ultimate opinion of the jury, Martin then attacked George Zimmerman, who defended himself with a fatal gunshot. Based on Jeantel’s testimony and Martin’s actions, it is reasonable to conclude that Martin felt like he’d been targeted for his race, age, and appearance, and he responded negatively.

When people are consistently treated unfairly, whether it be because of race, gender, religious identification, or any other arbitrary classification, we become hostile to the mistreatment. It is not unusual for us to become violent. As much as we would like to believe we are above animal instincts, those instincts still drive a significant portion of our reactions.

This can also be seen in the famous Stanford Prison study. Students given the roles of “prison guard” and “prisoner” very quickly started acting on those roles, regardless of their original temperament. While there are criticisms of that study, the key takeaway is sound: Humans are quick to fall back on stereotypes and to act as violently or as peaceably as their context leads them to.

In short, if you treat people like dogs, people will start to act like dogs.


This creates a vicious cycle, one that we’re seeing the full effect of now. Many police, prosecutors, and courts have decided that blacks are more likely to commit violent crimes, and so they enter into encounters with African-Americans, particularly African-American males, with that prejudicial thinking. Their interactions with African-American males are more aggressive, hostile, and defensive than in comparable situations with other people.

In response, just as Trayvon Martin confronted George Zimmerman, African-American male suspects become more aggressive, hostile, and defensive.

This increased tension is then used by police to justify a further increase in their own tensions.

How does it end? Well, not with ice cream.

The people in power need to find ways to de-escalate. Unlike in the White American Dream that Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of, justice is not blind: Right now, it’s unfairly skewed against People of Color, and not just African-Americans, specifically.

White people cannot pretend to be color-blind and simply ignore color: We have to take color into account and realize the effect of this on-going vicious cycle. Police officers, in particular, need to realize what’s been created and work to de-escalate and to reflect on how their own prejudices impact their interactions.


Here’s another difference between capuchin monkeys and humans: I expect that the problem with the monkeys could be fixed by just handing out grapes to both monkeys going forward. Humans aren’t like that. It’s not enough to just starting out handing out hugs and ice cream and forgetting about the past: We remember, we hold grudges, and we nervously wait for a return to the status quo, when we were being treated like garbage. When one party puts forward a candidate that speaks of “Making America Great Again”, it’s a major step backwards for people who weren’t treated well in that Old America.

Creating social equality to the comfort level of everyone involved isn’t an easy process. It isn’t a quick process. But it’s a necessary process.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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