Towards a Psychological Science of Racism: From Prejudice to Structures


October 12, 2023

IDS hosted Phillip Atiba Solomon, Chair and Carl I. Hovland Professor of African American Studies and Professor of Psychology at Yale University, for its first seminar in October of 2023.

Phillip Atiba Solomon speaking at IDS seminar


Phillip Atiba Solomon


Social science has long provided the popular language we use to make sense of racism. Stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, biases, and the like are all defined, measured, and tested in the social sciences. That is, racism is made real through these disciplines. And this is particularly true of social psychology. For instance, in the aftermath of the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999, social psychology appeared perfectly poised to address one of the most pressing issues of racism in the United States—how police could misidentify a wallet for a gun, and with deadly consequences. The social cognitive revolution that coincided with the turn of century had already spent a decade cataloging exactly these types of errors and how to combat them. After the uprisings in Ferguson, the literature on procedural justice seemed similarly well suited to answer a nation’s questions about how to prevent the next shooting. But in the wake of the lynching of George Floyd, social psychology was comparatively silent. I argue that this disciplinary silence stems from the national clarity that came in 2020 around the nature of racism. Namely that racism is a fundamentally structural concern (in addition to being a question of prejudice), a type of phenomenon to which social psychology had not bent its attentions in any meaningful way for several decades. This disciplinary blind spot mirrors a broader social one and with implications for how we go about fixing racism in policing. The research I will present—including laboratory studies, observational research, analyses of police and municipal data, and natural experiments—is my own best attempt to provide both the beginnings of a psychological science of racism beyond prejudice and a framework that may be useful to the broader public.

Phillip Atiba Solomon (f.k.a. Goff) is the Chair and Carl I. Hovland Professor of African American Studies and Professor of Psychology at Yale University. He received his AB from Harvard and PhD in Psychology from Stanford. 

He quickly became a national leader in the science of racial bias by pioneering scientific experiments that exposed how our minds learn to associate Blackness and crime implicitly—often with deadly consequences. 

Dr. Solomon co-founded the Center for Policing Equity in 2007 as a research and action center at UCLA. Since then, CPE has become the nation’s leading organization working to eliminate racism in public safety. CPE has pioneered research methods, data-driven interventions, and community-centered redesigns of public safety systems to reduce the drivers of racially disparate policing and reduce state burdens on Black and Brown communities. 

CPE also hosts the world’s largest collection of police behavioral data in the National Science Foundation-funded National Justice Database. This database now serves as a tool to reduce burdensome and inequitable policing through evidence-driven interventions. 

Dr. Solomon has won two American Psychological Association early career awards, the Association for Psychological Science Rising Star award, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executive’s Lloyd G. Sealy Award, and the Society of Experimental Social Psychology Career Trajectory Award among many others. He regularly appears on cable news, provides congressional testimony, and was a panelist for President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.