Black drivers get talked to harsher and with less respect than White drivers when they are pulled over by the police for a routine traffic stop.  That’s according to a new study by the American Psychological Association published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

“One of the things that was missing from [previous] studies was that it matters not just what people say, but how they say it,” Dr. Nicholas Camp, an assistant professor of organizational studies at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, told the media.

“One goal of this research was to see whether we would pick up on racial disparities in more subtle aspects of communication,” he said.

Researchers had previously found that police officers used less respectful language with Black drivers however this latest research shows it’s more than what they say, it’s also how cops say it.


“Racial disparities in cues as subtle as an officer’s tone of voice can shape citizens’ trust in the police and alter their interpretation of subsequent encounters,” the researchers wrote.

“These routine encounters are consequential because they are at once interpersonal and institutional interactions. As representatives of the state, police officers literally give voice to the law. In encounters with identical legal outcomes, an officer can communicate deference and understanding toward a citizen, or address them with condescension and indifference. At the same time, interpersonal aspects of these exchanges have institutional consequences.”

The Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that there were pervasive and persistent racial gaps in police-community trust: 42 percent of Whites but only 14 percent of Blacks report having a great deal of confidence in their local police department.

The American Psychological Association study, “The Thin Blue Waveform: Racial Disparities in Officer Prosody (Tone) Undermine Institutional Trust in the Police,” published in July, explained that the differences in how people feel about the police mirror disparities in how Black and White Americans’ reported their experiences with the police.

Blacks are more likely than Whites to report having been subjected to unnecessary questioning and disrespectful treatment in their interactions with the police.

“Law enforcement training teaches us to be courteous to all,” Dr. Matthew Fogg, retired U.S. Marshal, told The Final Call.  “Culture kicks in when officers are in the field.  Many police officers are not used to being in certain types of inner-city neighborhoods.  They feel they can talk to Blacks any way they want without repercussions.  There is clearly a difference in language and treatment,” he added.

“When White officers feel Black people have no back up to fight whatever is done to them, no access to a good lawyer, the officer feels a certain privilege to do whatever they want.  Black officers talk differently to White people when they are stopped.  Their language gets a little better, different words are used. Often when we stop our own people the language is also different, it can often be less formal,” explained Dr. Fogg.

The study researchers enlisted more than 400 people to listen to 250 short audio clips from body camera footage of routine traffic stops of men in an unnamed mid-size city. The audio was edited so the officer’s words were garbled but participants could hear the officer’s tone of voice.

The 250 clips (125 stops of Black men, and 125 stops of White men) were from a pool of 132 officers (15 female, 117 male; 43.9 percent White, 18.2 percent Black, 18.1 percent Latino, 16.6 percent Asian and 3.2 percent Other).

Participants rated the range of the officer’s tone from friendly, to at ease, and respectful toward the driver, or, if the officer talked down to the driver and in a cold or tense manner.

The study found that participants perceived officers’ tone toward Whites as more positive, and participants were more likely to categorize the officer’s speech toward Black drivers as talking down to them.

“This report is simply a reflection of the truth,” Abdul Arif Muhammad, Nation of Islam General Counsel, told The Final Call.  “We, as Black people, have experienced this.  This reflects what we have been saying from the Teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad concerning how we are treated differently by the police.  This is because of the attitude that is formed in many of their minds regarding Black people, which is rooted in White supremacy and a history of racism,” said Atty. Muhammad.

“What we know is that even among our own people, they are attempting to mimic and be like those officers that they have been trained with.  Many have adopted the same mental attitude against their own people, which is reflective of self-hatred.  They participate in the same mistreatment of their own as the White officers in order to be considered a part of the blue wall of silence.”

—Nisa Islam Muhammad, Staff Writer