Studying the Immediate Impact of Racially Traumatic Stressful Events

Following is one in a series of blog posts by MPSA members about their research that has received funding by either the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Here, Principal Investigator, Byron D’Andra Orey of Jackson State University, summarizes his research on “The Impact of Racially Traumatic Stressful Events on African Americans’ Psychological, Physiological and Political Responses.” 

Examples of images used in the Orey’s physiological study.

The many shootings of unarmed African Americans over the last few years prompted me to begin writing a grant proposal in September 2014, one month after an African-American male, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a white male police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. During the month of March 2015, four such deaths occurred in a span of only five days in Aurora, Colorado, Chamblee, Georgia, Los Angeles, California, and Madison, Wisconsin.

In May of 2015, I submitted the proposal to study the impact of what I have termed Racially Traumatic Stressful Events (RTSEs) on voters’ psychological, physiological and political responses which was awarded the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant. RTSEs are defined as race-related incidents that result in trauma and stress for some of those who are directly or indirectly exposed to such events. Such events can yield negative responses, even if individuals were not directly exposed to these events. For example, indirect exposure may occur when Facebook users are forced to watch events as immediately-streaming videos appear in newsfeeds.

In response to two of the most publicized cases, the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, protesters responded violently by killing two police officers in New York and wounding two in Ferguson.

Arguably, such violence was at the hand of individuals who were enraged by RTSEs. These individuals had been pushed to their limits and responded as such. Additionally, after witnessing the uprising across the country (e.g., Black Lives Matter movement), this research became even more important, given the dearth of biopolitics studies that include sizeable numbers of African-American subjects to study their political attitudes and behavior.

Due to my location and proximity to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the Deep South, I had a unique opportunity to pursue research using a large N of African-American subjects. It should be noted that though not all HBCUs are made up exclusively of African Americans or people of color, they were borne of segregation and continue to maintain this designation.

The first experiment was initiated in September 2014, approximately one month following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The data were collected from two convenience samples consisting of African-American undergraduates recruited from a Historically Black University, located in the South. A total of 115 subjects were recruited from online introductory level American Government courses and Introduction to Political Science courses to complete an online survey.

In this analysis, a pre- and post-test were conducted examining subjects’ attitudes one week prior to the grand jury’s decision and one week afterwards. The pre-test served as a control and did not include a stimulus as students were simply asked to complete an online survey. The post-test, on the other hand, included two stimuli that were randomly disseminated to two groups receiving pictures of a group of black police officers wearing riot gear and a group of white officers wearing the exact same gear. Based on these findings, blacks who were exposed to white police officers possessed more anger towards America when compared to the control; whereas, there was no significant difference between subjects who were exposed to black police officers and the control group. The findings here are somewhat predictable given the media coverage of white police officers killing blacks.

In the second analysis, items used to measure American Identity proved to be ineffective in achieving a statistically significant relationship between the stimuli and the control group. A second analysis was run by including only one of the items: “Being an American is important to the way that I think about myself as a person.” Based on these findings, subjects who were exposed to the stimulus with black police officers agreed to the statement that being American is important in the way they think about themselves more than the control group. One explanation here might be that blacks were more trustful of black police when compared to whites. For example, using anecdotal information, the media coverage included a black captain of the Missouri Highway Patrol who informed the public that he could empathize with the protesters because he too had a son. For a brief while, he was able to calm black protesters prior to the grand jury’s decision. This is consistent with evidence that shows community police officers are viewed as more trustworthy by the citizens who live in those communities.

In the physiological study, subjects were exposed to a random set of stimuli that consisted of happy images as well as images of police and protesters behaving violently. Three physiological measures have been used in this study: electrodermal activity (EDA), respiratory measures and electrocardiogram (ECG). At current, however, electrodermal measures have been used the most frequently because of time constraints. In other words, because we wanted to acquire preliminary results before moving forward with the actual study (which required paying the subjects), only one measure was employed and analyzed. I was able to analyze data using 15 subjects with results revealing that subjects who were exposed to both images of the police and protesters responded more when compared to the baseline than those who saw happy images.

Broader Impact and NSFs Rationale for Incorporating the Research

One of the most significant and rewarding outcomes I have experienced related to NSF-funded projects has been seeing the real world benefit of increasing the number of African-Americans in summer research and graduate programs.

Because of this grant, I was able to employ 10 part-time undergraduate and graduate students to assist with the research. Of those 10, five worked with me beyond the initial project. All five of those students received summer internships or fellowships. After receiving multiple offers, one graduate student working on this project has accepted an offer to attend one of the most noted biopolics programs at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Student researchers involved with the project have also been offered summer fellowships by the University of Chicago, Princeton, Michigan State University, and Duke University’s prestigious Bunche Institute. One student received an internship with the ACLU office in Jackson, Mississippi and a Business major working on the project has accepted an internship with a Beverly Hill’s marketing firm.

It should also be noted that following an NSF grant in 2008 which also focused on student research, students from Jackson State University have enrolled in PhD programs at the University of Michigan, the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Texas A&M, Purdue University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Texas, San Antonio, and Jackson State University. Students have participated in summer programs at Princeton, Harvard, Duke, the University of California, Irvine, Michigan State University, and the University of Chicago, while others have received multiple internships.

About the Author: Byron D’Andra Orey is a Professor of Political Science at Jackson State University. His research is in the area of race and politics, focusing heavily on racial attitudes and legislative behavior.