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"Creating Safety and Community: Neighborhood Safety Initiatives, Implicit Bias and Racial Anxiety,"

by Rachel Godsil & Jessica MacFarlane October-December 2016 issue of Poverty & Race

We are in a moment in which explicit racism and an alarming rise in hate crimes are demanding our attention—as they should. But even those of us who would never shout racial epithets can be implicated in creating a feeling of exclusion based upon race or ethnicity in our neighborhoods.

Before the election—and this trend is likely to continue—Neighborhood Watch organizations and on-line neighborhood groups have been organizing to protect their homes and families from crime. Collective efforts such as these have the potential to bring people together with a common purpose and to increase feelings of community and belonging. However, these positive outcomes will be imperiled and neighborhoods will be less safe if the neighborly vigilance turns into racial profiling. This term, racial profiling, is usually reserved for actions by law enforcement, but in some cases, the profiling begins with civilians. When a neighbor views a person’s behavior as “suspicious” based upon their race or ethnicity and calls the police, it is the neighbor’s determination that triggers the engagement of law enforcement.

Consider the following example: one late afternoon, a father glances out of the window of his home and notices a man slowly walking back and forth on the front lawn of the house two doors down. The man is Black. The father watches as the man continues pacing, talking to himself. The father finds this very suspicious and calls the police to report the man. Shortly afterward, four police cars arrive on the scene. The father feels good for having done his part to protect the community.

For some, reaction to this scenario might be that the father did the right thing. He saw a man acting suspiciously, walking back and forth in front of his neighbor’s home. The man could have been thinking about breaking into the house. Maybe he was armed. In reality, though, the man was a friend of the neighbor; he was talking on his cell phone.
Sometimes people make mistakes, and it can be argued that the interest of safety outweighs the consequences of a mistake. But this particular mistake—calling the police to report actions by people engaged in seemingly innocuous activity such as talking on a cell phone—seems rarely to occur to white people and instead is a burden generally borne by people of color, particularly Black and Latino males (Harris, 2002).

Researchers—and increasingly police departments—have concluded that racial profiling by police officers does not promote safety. Instead, it diverts resources from identifying and stopping actual criminals (Harris, 2002). In his book, Suspect Race: Causes and Consequences of Racial Profiling, Professor Jack Glaser concludes that racial profiling neither controls crime nor increases public safety (Glaser, 2015). And there is strong evidence to suggest that the same is true of racial profiling by neighbors.

The social science behind the concepts of implicit bias and racial anxiety forms a compelling case for why community efforts to promote safety may be ineffective. At the individual level, the occurrence of these biased responses leads to resentment among those who feel targeted, and divides neighborhoods, especially along racial lines. At the community level, racial profiling erodes social cohesion by undermining neighbors’ shared values of equity and respect, their ability to form genuine relationships, and the sense of trust between groups.

Research has examined the link between social cohesion and community-based safety efforts, concluding that in neighborhoods where there are low levels of social cohesion and trust, residents feel less positive about their neighbors’ efforts at social control and believe these efforts to be less successful (Warner, 2014). Further, when residents do not feel close to their neighbors, they are less likely to engage in efforts to prevent neighborhood crime (Warner, 2014). Not surprisingly, with decreasing participation, the system of neighborhood prevention loses effectiveness. In fact, Professor Barbara Warner argues that positive responses to neighborhood efforts are fundamental to effective crime prevention, and may be more critical than the efforts themselves (Warner, 2014).

The causes of racial profiling—and the tendency to view actions by Black and Latino males as suspicious—can occur even among people who reject racial stereotypes and hold egalitarian attitudes. Well-intentioned people too often stereotype Black and Latino males as dangerous without conscious awareness, a phenomena referred to as implicit bias (Greenwald & Banaji, 2013). In the case of the man in front of the house, stereotypes linking Black men to crime and exaggerated representations of Black men as violent likely influenced the father’s reaction, without him even realizing it. Of critical importance, even if we know such race-based stereotypes are distorted or we consciously refute them, they can be embedded in our unconscious minds and have a meaningful impact on our decision-making.

When this racial profiling occurs in communities—by neighbors—its effects can be pernicious. Police officers will receive a call from a person identifying “two Hispanic men driving in the cul de sac,” without any other information suggesting criminal activity. The police are generally obligated to respond, leading to a misuse of police resources and harassment of men simply driving in a neighborhood. As was reported in 2015, the Santa Monica Police Department dispatched 19 police officers to an apartment complex after a resident reported he was witnessing a robbery. In reality, a Black woman had locked herself out of her home, and a locksmith was helping her get inside (Wells, 2015).

Implicit bias leading to unwarranted suspicion is a challenge we must address—but it is not the only one. Racial anxiety is another critical factor in inter-racial dynamics. Racial anxiety—the experience of stress before or during an inter-racial interaction—can be felt by anyone (Tropp & Page-Gould, 2015). For people of color, it is the fear that they will be met with distrust, poor treatment, or invalidation; for white people, it is the fear that they will be met with hostility or presumed to be racist. This anxiety is experienced acutely as a physiological phenomenon (Page-Gould, Mendoza-Denton, & Tropp, 2008); as can be imagined, this heightened anxiety has the potential to exacerbate awareness of race-based stereotypes and, therefore, increase racial profiling. For instance, in the example discussed above, racial anxiety may have contributed to the father’s fear of the man and his sense of urgency in contacting the police.

The social science research can be used to improve neighborhood crime prevention efforts by identifying strategies to counter implicit bias and racial anxiety. Most fundamental to effective neighborhood efforts is community unity. Increasing contact between neighbors, particularly from different racial and ethnic groups, builds familiarity and trust (Godsil et al., 2014), undermines stereotypic assumptions linked to race, and can prevent a kneejerk instinct to call police in a response simply based on race. However, the homogeneity of neighborhoods presents a substantial challenge, as many people may not come into contact with neighbors of varying races and ethnicities. And indeed, racial biases and anxieties can make people less likely to purchase homes in diverse neighborhoods (Boddie, 2010). As a result, a crucial step to minimize racial profiling is for individuals to take steps to override implicit racial bias. Research presents several strategies that can be employed to counter stereotypic assumptions and to prevent bias from manifesting in harmful behavior (Devine et al., 2012; Kang et al., 2012). Simply examining the interpretation of harmless behavior as “suspicious” when carried out by a person of a certain race or ethnicity (i.e. asking ourselves, “would this still be suspicious if the person were white?”) is a meaningful step in acknowledging the role of implicit bias and preventing the perpetuation of racial profiling.

While community efforts aim to promote safety, the automatic reliance on stereotypes ostracizes neighbors, breaks community trust, and in the end, undermines these efforts. Creating a truly secure community is harder work. In diverse neighborhoods, personal contact, shared activities, and inclusive planning can lay the groundwork for collective efforts toward safety. In every neighborhood, a conscious commitment to override the biases that cloud better judgment is critical to making these efforts successful.


Banaji, M. & Greenwald, G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Boddie, E. C. (2010). Racial Territoriality. UCLA Law Review 58(2), 401-463. 

Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48(6), 1267–1278.

Godsil, R. D., Tropp, L. R., Goff, P. A., & powell, j. a. (2014). The Science of Equality, Volume. 1: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Healthcare. Perception Institute. Retrieved from:

Glaser, J. (2015). Suspect Race: Causes and Consequences of Racial Profiling. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Harris, D. (2002). Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work. New York, NY: New Press.

Kang, J., Bennett, M. W., Carbado, D. W., Casey, P., Dasgupta, N., Faigman, D. L., … Mnookin, J. (2012). Implicit bias in the courtroom. UCLA Law Review, 59(5).

Page-Gould, E., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Tropp, L. R. (2008). With a little help from my cross-group friend: reducing anxiety in intergroup contexts through cross-group friendship. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1080-1094.

Tropp, L., & Page-Gould, E. (2015). Contact between groups. In APA handbook of personality and social psychology, Volume 2: Group processes (pp. 535–560). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Warner, B. D. (2014). Neighborhood factors related to the likelihood of successful informal social control efforts. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(5), 421-430.

Wells, F. (2015). My white neighbor thought I was breaking into my own apartment. Nineteen cops showed up. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Rachel Godsil is a Professor of Law at Seton Hall University and Director of Research and Co-Founder of Perception Institute
Jessica MacFarlane is the Research Associate at Perception Institute.

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