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Seeing Blue in Black and White: Race and Perceptions of Officer-Involved Shootings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 December 2020


Following racially charged events, individuals often diverge in perceptions of what happened and how justice should be served. Examining data gathered shortly after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri alongside reactions to a novel officer-involved shooting, we unpack the processes by which racial divisions emerge. Even in a controlled information environment, white Americans preferred information that supported claims of a justified shooting. Conversely, Black Americans preferred information that implied that the officer behaved inappropriately. These differences stemmed from two distinct processes: we find some evidence for a form of race-based motivated reasoning and strong evidence for belief updating based on racially distinct priors. Differences in summary judgments were larger when individuals identified strongly with their racial group or when expectations about the typical behaviors of Black Americans and police diverged. The findings elucidate processes whereby individuals in different social groups come to accept differing narratives about contentious events.

© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section


Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

We acknowledge funding for this project from the University of Michigan’s Office of Research and the University of Michigan Department of Communication and Media’s Marsh fund. We thank the following individuals for their generous feedback and helpful conversations: Joe Bayer, Adam Bonica, Camille Burge, Charles Crabtree, Lauren Davenport, Chris DeSante, Dave Dunning, Allison Earl, Bernard Fraga, Justin Grimmer, Andy Hall, Mike Hall, Rodney Hero, Vince Hutchings, Shanto Iyengar, Neil Lewis, Andrew Little, Sara Meerow, Jonathan Mummolo, Spencer Piston, Koji Takahashi, Nick Valentino, Hannah Walker, Hao Wang, and Carly Wayne. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 2015 MPSA meeting and the 2016 APSA meeting. We also thank participants at the Georgetown University American Government Seminar, the University of Michigan Health Attitudes & Influence Lab, the University of Michigan Political Communication Working Group, the University of Michigan Decision Consortium, the School of Politics & Global Studies workshop at Arizona State University, the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Arizona, and the Princeton Policing Conference. We are also indebted to a host of anonymous reviewers who helped to improve our manuscript over the years. We thank James Newburg for the title. We long for the day when this work is no longer relevant.


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