After the shooting of Michael Brown, I saw a number of claims along these lines and, knowing little about the subject, thought they sounded feasible:
Today, Reason suggests that this isn’t true. This is not to say that your average person doesn’t feel more threatened by a black assailant; it’s just that they are more reluctant to shoot. The linked report records that:
Participants in an innovative Washington State University study of deadly force were more likely to feel threatened in scenarios involving black people. But when it came time to shoot, participants were biased in favor of black suspects, taking longer to pull the trigger against them than against armed white or Hispanic suspects…
[WSU researcher Lois] James’ study is a follow-up to one in which she found active police officers, military personnel and the general public took longer to shoot black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects. Participants were also more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than black or Hispanic ones and more likely to fail to fire at armed black suspects.
“In other words,” wrote James and her co-authors, “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.”
When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 24-millisecond difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.
This, the research team suggest, may be the product of “people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial or ethnic group.” Who knows? Either way, it’s always important for journalists to resist the temptation to draw sweeping judgments from individual cases — especially when those cases remain unresolved.
UPDATE: I asked Sally Kohn which studies she was referring to, and she linked me here. The relevant part:
Implicit racial bias has also been found in what researchers call a “shooter bias” — in which subjects playing a simulated video game are more likely to mistakenly pull the trigger on unarmed black men than on unarmed white suspects. The phenomenon has been tested and proved with police officers, too.