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Back in 2010 we featured a post about a segment from the “What Would You Do?” series from abc News that illustrated the way that race plays a role in who is labeled as deviant and who is given the benefit of the doubt.

The producers had teens vandalize a car in public to see what onlookers would do. To see if race played a role, they tried it with a group of White boys and then with a group of African American boys. Only one 911 call was made on the White boys, but 10 calls were made on the African American teens. Moreover, while the White teens were vandalizing the car, 911 received a call to report the African American boys simply for being asleep in a car, which the caller took as a possible sign they were planning to engage in criminal activity.

We see this same pattern in another “What Would You Do?” segment. This time, a young White man and a young African American man try to remove a lock from a bike as the cameras capture the reactions of onlookers.

The onlooker interviewed toward the end says race played no role in his reaction. But the extremely different reactions to the two teens indicate differences in who is perceived as likely to be engaged in criminal activity, and whose criminal activity we may think deserves being reported to the police, rather than given a disapproving tsk-tsk as we walk on by.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
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