Recent race-related events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and New York City make it seem like race is a big problem in America, but in reality America seems that way because of transparency. We never need to run ad campaigns to stop racist chants at sporting events, which remain a big problem in Europe, and South America and Asia are so racist there isn't much reason to talk about it - Japan is not going to take any refugees from Syria or anywhere else.
The reason stories about racial problems in America feel fake is the same reason no one outside social psychology thinks the Implicit Association Test is anything but a colorized version of a Rorschach test - stereotypes actually have little to do with race, instead it is about beliefs regarding how people from different environments, or 'ecologies,' are likely to think and behave. If you are in New York City and above 110th street and can't get a cab, it isn't because there are more minorities, the city is mostly minorities, it is because criminals live in cheaper places.
In the PNAS paper "Ecology-driven stereotypes override race stereotypes," psychology graduate students conducted a series of five studies examining the stereotypes people hold about individuals who live in resource-poor and unpredictable ('desperate') environments as compared to those who live in resource-sufficient and predictable ('hopeful') environments. They concluded that desperate and hopeful environments tend to shape the behavior of those living within them by altering the costs and benefits of different behavioral strategies. Desperate ecologies tend to reward 'faster,' present-focused behaviors whereas hopeful ecologies tend to reward 'slower,' future-oriented behaviors.
Because ecology shapes behavior, the authors argue, social perceivers are likely to use cues to another's ecology, or environment they come from, to make predictions about how that person is likely to think and behave. Indeed, research participants stereotyped those from desperate environments as relatively faster -- as more impulsive, sexually promiscuous, likely to engage in opportunistic behavior and as less invested in their education and children, than individuals from hopeful ecologies.
So if what the media and social activists want to claim are racial stereotypes are instead ecology-driven stereotypes, then it may be because whites are more likely to live in relatively hopeful ecologies - so the obvious test is to provide ecology information independent from race and see if that would lead people to decrease their use of race stereotypes. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson commented that one time he heard footsteps behind him late at night in Chicago and was relieved to see it was a white person, but perhaps it is only because he was in a bad ecology. If he had been in the Upper West Side of Manhattan he might not have turned to look at all.
To assess the relationship between ecology and race stereotypes, the students first examined participants' stereotypes of individuals from desperate and hopeful ecologies (with no race information provided) and compared these responses to participants' stereotypes of blacks and whites (with no ecology information provided). The patterns were identical -- stereotypes of blacks mirrored stereotypes of individuals from desperate environments, and stereotypes of whites mirrored stereotypes of individuals from hopeful environments.
"However, when provided with information about both the race and ecology of others, individuals' inferences about others reflect their ecology rather than their race," said Arizona State University doctoral student Keelah Williams. "Black and white targets from desperate ecologies were stereotyped similarly, and black and white targets from hopeful ecologies were stereotyped similarly. In thinking about black and white individuals from hopeful and desperate ecologies, information about the individuals' home ecology trumped information about their race."
So race is an imperfect cue to ecology and therefore not everything that happens is racism - if you are in a bad area of Detroit the race of the potential mugger is probably not on your mind. And with police shootings in bad ecologies, it may not be racism, but rather that some officers could be exaggerating stereotypes of bad ecologies in stressful situations.