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The 'Thumbprint Of The Culture': Implicit Bias And Police Shootings

In the aftermath of a police-involved shooting, there's often a familiar debate about what led to it. But research shows there's an underlying cause that we often miss.
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In the aftermath of a police-involved shooting, there's often a familiar debate about what led to it. But research shows there's an underlying cause that we often miss.

On a September evening in 2016, Terence Crutcher's SUV stopped in the middle of a road in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A woman saw him step out of his car. The doors of the car were open and the engine was still running. The woman called 911. Officer Betty Shelby was on her way to an unrelated incident when the call came in.

Unfortunately, the way this night ended has become all too familiar. An unarmed black man was shot by a cop.

In the weeks after the incident, accusations flew back and forth. Betty Shelby's lawyer tried to defend her fear as reasonable. Terence Crutcher's family said he was shot because he was black.

So was he really a threat? Was the cop just racist? Or is there something more complicated at play? Something that affects everyone in the culture, not just police officers who shoot unarmed African-American men?

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore research about implicit bias and how a culture of racism can infect us all.

This episode includes references to research by Mahzarin Banaji, Eric Hehman, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, and Joshua Correll. You'll also hear from Philip Tetlock. If you'd like to take the Implicit Association Test yourself after listening, click here.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr and Rhaina Cohen. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.