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You Can't Control Art: Race, Bias & Brain

Race, Bias & the Brain with Dr. Binyam Nardos (Behavioral Neuroscience, OHSU) & Teressa Raiford (Don’t Shoot Portland)

Find out about the neuroscience, art and advocacy surrounding race disputes in law enforcement.

WHERE: Velo Cult, 1969 NE 42nd Ave, Portland, OR 97213
WHEN: Wednesday, January 24, 6 – 8pm

TERESSA RAIFORD: The founder of Don’t Shoot Portland, Teressa creates and contributes to community art to engage people in seeking and achieving social justice. From Teressa: “Non Violent Direct Actions are engineered by tools we have inherited from our individual life experiences, and real influence from elders and history. Using education has been the key to our consistency and evolution of tactics. History, Art and Educations combined institutional access powers up our Artistic medium to engage community.” Enjoy the opportunity to create powerful collages that reflect and make visible all people who contribute to this place we call home.

DR. BINYAM NARDOS (OHSU): Unofficial reports by some media outlets and community outreach organizations that track and document police violence demonstrate that more than any other demographic group, young black males are at a particularly heightened risk for fatal police encounters.

There are many possible underlying causes for the reported violent interactions between police and black individuals. To shed light on the issue, one approach taken by psychologists and neuroscientists has been to investigate potential behavioral and intrinsic brain-based biases when perceiving black versus white faces. One notable study (B. Keith Payne, 2001) reports that brief presentation of black vs white faces as racial cues can actually “prime” a quicker response to weapons or items of danger. The same manipulation increases mis-identification of tools as weapons for black, relative to white, face cues. This occurs even if the face cue was flashed so quickly that the participant doesn’t even know it was there.

The above and similar findings point to race as an important construct that drives perception, which may, at least in part, drive the actions taken by law enforcement. Binyam’s research in Damien Fair’s Neuroimaging Lab in Behavioral Neuroscience at OHSU, which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience asks an additional question. Are these types of relationships dependent, or even enhanced, based on the emotional state of the subject making quick decisions?

To investigate the effects of race and emotional context on face perception, our study used black and white faces as stimuli in a functional MRI task (emotional go/no-go task) designed to study impulse control in black and white young adults. Three emotional contexts were induced in participants: rewarding, threatening, or neutral contexts. Behaviorally, participants exhibited greater impulsive actions (more false alarms) to black faces, which was enhanced in threat contexts. This finding was paralleled in the brain. Brain patterns revealed increased functional MRI activity for black faces in threatening contexts, as opposed to few face differences in neutral and rewarding contexts. 

***Our results demonstrate the importance of emotional context as an important factor that influences race perception, and subsequent decision-making. Such findings should assist in ongoing efforts to increase awareness of race disparities in law enforcement and ultimately a reduction in preventable violent encounters.***

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