Professor Wilson on Social Identity and Ethics in Ferguson

September 2, 2014

By Associate Professor Molly Walker Wilson

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have raised important questions about the appropriate role of police departments in municipalities around the country. Mike Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer has come to represent the victimization of a majority black community by its almost entirely white police department. The term petit apartheid refers to policing that is discriminatory in nature and typically involves targeting African-Americans in their own communities. This concept is related to the concept of profiling which has been so controversial, particularly in the area of drug enforcement interest. Others have written in great detail about these issues; I mention it here in order to set the stage for the following discussion of the way in which group and social identity can encourage ethical behavior in community members, even when circumstances would seem to encourage violence.

Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sexual preference has typically been thought of as occurring when the members of these groups are the minority. However for many individuals who live in communities where there is discriminatory policing, the most prevalent group is the “minority” group. This fact creates a situation in which the members of the community, because of their greater numbers, have the ability to stage a resistance. In Ferguson, recent resistance involved a small number of individuals committing acts of violence and destruction, and a majority engaged in peaceful protesting.  

What accounts for the difference is in the reactions of these individuals to oppressive police practices? There are questions about the extent to which the aggressive protesters were community members at all. At least a handful of looters reportedly came from as far away as Texas. Some suggest that the looting and vandalism was opportunistic rather than being an outgrowth of anger at past treatment by police. We may never know which individuals were instrumental in inciting violence, and what their motivations were. To me, more interesting than the motivations of these few is the question of why the peaceful majority remained so. The nonviolent protesters were from the community. They had been victims of the discriminatory police practices. When they took to the streets, they faced police whose appearance and actions seemed disproportionately hostile. They were tear-gassed and reportedly treated as a threat, even when they were not. Why did the majority of protesters remain peaceful, even in the face of what many deemed unnecessary aggression and violence?

It is unlikely that the underlying rationale for the behavior occurred spontaneously. Very likely, the peaceful protesters identified themselves with a group of community members that behaved according to a certain moral and ethical code. In refraining from escalating the situation and threatening the health of local businesses, these community members manifested an allegiance with those whose homes and businesses were in proximity to the protests.

Social science psychology helps to explain how social connection and belonging resulted in peaceful protesters differentiating themselves from those who were destructive. Psychologists John Levine and Richard Moreland developed the theory of group socialization or the way in which individuals welcomed into a group. Two important phases of this group socialization process (1) entry and initiation and (2) socialization. In order for an individual to be able to enter a group and become initiated, the group must determine that the individual will bring value to the group. Individuals who are seen as to the dissimilar in terms of values or who are threatening in some way will not be welcomed into the group. During the socialization phase, individuals who have recently joined the group learn the norms and expectations of the group.

Social identity is the knowledge of group membership and the value and emotional significance attached to this group membership. For many Ferguson residents, their status as members of that community became particularly salient during the events following the shooting. Several features of the situation contributed to this phenomenon. As if they could forget, community members were repeatedly reminded of their status as Ferguson residents by virtue of the intense media attention surrounding Brown’s death and the ensuing the protests. The media identified them not in terms of their education or marital status or employment or religion or political affiliation or status in the community, but as Ferguson residents and protesters. After being featured on national television as taking a stand to improve their neighborhood, to increase violence or to victimize local Ferguson businesses, would have been at odds with their purported goals, creating uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Moreover, the precipitating event arguably (perhaps ironically) encouraged restraint in protesting residents. Particularly for those individuals who had been subjects of police misconduct, there was a self-conscious identification with the eighteen-year-old victim. That Mike Brown was unarmed when he was shot was emblematic of the nonviolent nature of residents; that he was shot by an officer was a symbol of their oppression. To respond with violence, would have undermined their identity as targets of unjustified police harassment.

The glue that holds communities together can be a powerful force that reinforces ethical behavior, even when—especially when—members of that community have a history of having been treated unethically.

Police Officer to people gathered on West Florissant Avenue: “Go home!”

Person in the crowd: “We are home!”

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