Gentrification and Policing of Minorities: fMRI-Tested Inevitability of Racial Bias Demands a Policy Change

December 27, 2021
Research Archives

Authors: RJ Shah, Sam Zhou

Mentor: Emily Parks

Institution: Duke University


Gentrification in America is a growing issue in large cities. As demand for housing becomes more competitive, racial minorities seem to take the brunt of the damage as they become ‘priced-out’ of their neighborhoods. These regions see an influx of resources to schools with low minority populations and are catalyzed by increased policing to oversee the transition in neighborhood demographics. The combined pressures from housing costs and education inequality result in shifts in law enforcement dynamics in the schools and neighborhoods of gentrifying areas. After analyzing visual-stimulus fMRI data related to differential amygdala activity in response to race, there is confidence in the conclusion that racial bias is an ingrained construct that is not only a potential vehicle for disproportionate policing, but also difficult to resolve through training. Instead of eliminating racial bias, a more effective response to over-policing in minority neighborhoods may be to minimize gentrification.

Gentrification is the Axis of Housing, Public Schooling, and Racial Bias

The combination of economic and social pressures causes shifts in population patterns. With American population growth on an exponential rise, these pressures will only become more significant. Unfortunately, movement will be met with challenges for those that cannot afford to or have the resources to live in their desired neighborhood. Oftentimes, these dynamic changes force families out of a region in a process known as gentrification.

Gentrification is the axis of America’s housing, schooling, and racial bias issues. Many gentrifying areas in America see movement of races in different directions; the influx of whites frequently displaces formerly black neighborhoods with resources pouring in only after their exodus (Kirkland, 2008). Gentrification provides more opportunities for racial bias to be expressed, particularly in schools and neighborhoods. As gentrifying regions undergo massive social changes, the shift in local income reflects upon public schools; those who live in wealthier areas have more property tax to support their schools while those who cannot see school districts that are pools of low socioeconomic status families. Those underdeveloped schools become targets for school resource officers (SROs) to over enforce zero tolerance policies (ZTPs), which sends minority students to jail, therefore contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline (Stpp). Similarly, as gentrification forces families to leave their neighborhoods, these transformations do not occur without controversy; enhanced law enforcement to oversee and facilitate such demographic changes also see issues. Police begin to use Order Maintenance Policing (OMP) strategies, which essentially is a green light for police to use flawed personal judgement to crack down on suspected violence, harming minority populations.

           Racial bias is the basis of these harmful consequences of gentrification. Therefore, neuroscientific evidence regarding racial bias can prove helpful in finding and evaluating possible solutions to these problems, namely racial bias training and policies to reduce gentrification. From examining the possible neuroscientific explanations behind how gentrification increases the rate of incarceration of students and residents, we conclude that training to disincentivize racial bias may not be a reliable solution. Instead, a reduction in gentrification is necessary to prevent this phenomenon.

           In this paper, we will first discuss how neuroscience, specifically using fMRI data, can expand on the understanding of what causes implicit racial bias. Next, we will observe the specific impacts of gentrification in the context of over policing by SROs in public schools in gentrifying areas and how SROs’ vague authority to punish and ZTPs combine to provide new opportunities for racial bias and ultimately the expansion of the Stpp. Finally, we will observe the impacts of gentrification in the context of over policing in neighborhoods and how OMP strategies and citizens’ demands independently provide new opportunities for racial bias. Throughout our discussion on racial bias amplified by gentrification in public schools and neighborhoods in gentrifying areas, we will cross-apply our findings from fMRI data to analyze the behavioral consequences within each domain. We then conclude our findings with suggestions about the approach that must be taken to alleviate the consequences of racial bias: whether we should reduce gentrification or reduce racial bias.

fMRI Evidence Demonstrates the Innate Nature of Implicit Racial Bias

Neuroscientific technology, particularly fMRI brain scans, was used to find the neurobiological causes of implicit racial bias and suggest that this trait is innate. Wheeler and Fiske (2005) presented white participants with pictures of white (in-group) and black (out-group) faces and asked them to perform a series of social and non-social tasks, including a social categorization task and a lexical decision task (Wheeler and Fiske, 2005). From fMRI brain scans, the researchers found significantly greater left amygdala activity for both tasks when participants were presented with black faces, and viewing black faces can prime stereotypes about black individuals. Indeed, multiple studies have confirmed that differential amygdala firing in response to skin-tone does occur, confirming the associations between racial bias and perceived fear or threat (Ronquillo et al., 2007). This finding indicates the innate nature of racial bias, as the amygdala is directly connected with the fear and threat response. However, no difference was found in social individuation and non-social tasks, suggesting that implicit racial bias may only play a significant role in social interactions and the formation of stereotypes.

Other relevant research confirms that racial bias is an innate trait related to cognitive processes, especially emotion, that exists across multiple cultures. White participants are shown to have lower cognitive performance after social interaction with a black confederate, the out-group, than with a white confederate, the in-group (Richeson and Shelton, 2003). This result indicates that the act of inhibiting racial bias against the out-group is a cognitively demanding task that subsequently results in lower cognitive ability. Shen et al. (2018) also concluded from fMRI data that Chinese participants tend to show more empathy and greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortices (ACC), which manage cognitive processes such as emotions, towards members of their own race as compared to Europeans (Shen et al., 2018). In addition, the functional connectivity between the insula and the amygdala, as well as between the insula and the ACC, can predict Chinese participants’ implicit racial bias towards African Americans (Liu et al., 2015). These studies agree with Wheeler and Fiske’s findings about the role of cognitive functions, particularly emotion, in implicit racial bias, and demonstrate that implicit racial bias can arise during social interactions. The experiments by Shen et al. (2018), and Liu et al. (2015) also add to Wheeler and Fiske’s findings by suggesting that implicit racial bias is correlated with activity in the amygdala, the ACC, and the insula.

These studies demonstrate that racial bias is inherent and linked to brain areas regulating cognitive functions, and is therefore difficult to prevent. The four studies reach similar conclusions despite investigating participants of different ethnicities, showing that their findings can be generalized cross-culturally.

We can use this result to evaluate the means of preventing the School-to-Prison Pipeline (Stpp) in public schools and over policing in neighborhoods in gentrifying areas. Specifically, these findings suggest that implementing more rigorous racial bias training of school resource officers and police officers may not be reliable in preventing these phenomena due to the nature of implicit racial bias.

The Role of Gentrification in the Expansion of the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Public Schools

In public schools, racial prejudice plays a role in feeding minority students into the School-to-Prison Pipeline (Stpp), forcing them to face legal trouble at a young age, increasing dropouts and the chance of committing crimes. The current state of the Stpp cannot be overlooked. Racial minorities are underrepresented in school populations, but are overrepresented in student crime. Those students are more likely to be punished by School Resource Officers (SROs) and in court by judges, and thus face obstacles in their educational careers (Redfield and Nance, 2016). Compared to white students, students of African American origin are from 2.19 to 3.78 times more likely to be referred by SROs for behavioral problems (Russell et al., 2011). Additionally, black students tend to be subject to more severe punishments than white students for the same offense (Nicholson-Crotty et al., 2009). The socioeconomic gap between white and black families is also shown to be positively correlated with the difference between the number of white and black referrals in the juvenile court and that between the number of exclusions of black and white students due to disciplinary reasons (Nicholson-Crotty et al., 2009). Therefore, as wealthy gentrifiers move into an area with mostly racial minorities, more students of racial minorities will be excluded from school and sent to jail.

Gentrification amplifies the Stpp by influencing massive changes in local demographics. As rising costs and property taxes in gentrifying regions price out families of lower socioeconomic status, they exceedingly become pushed out of their neighborhoods (Zukin, 2009). As a result, the movement of wealthier families into an area transforms districts from poor to expensive areas (Zukin, 2009). In the long-term, this ‘pricing-out’ effect of gentrification segregates districts and thus the public schools associated with them; gentrified families become so geographically isolated from schools in wealthier areas that they can no longer pursue attendance in middle-class schools (Rothstein, 2015). The segregation of neighborhood and public school populations is compounded by the effects of property taxes; because local funding is tied to property values, gentrified families leave students in schools with poor resources while the gentrifiers ‘lock away’ higher quality education (Ireland, 2003). These factors combine to create a direct link between gentrification and the Stpp. Gentrifying regions see an increase in police presence in public schools, and the higher concentration of minorities due to relocation creates ‘hot spots’ for police to criminalize behaviors that are more common to minorities, thus amplifying the Stpp (Leguichard, 2019). These ‘hot spots’ allow SROs to use multiple mechanisms to punish minority students.

One mechanism for enhancing the Stpp is manipulating the SROs’ vague authority to punish students. White Americans tend to have higher socioeconomic status and greater academic performance in school, which can lead to a lower likelihood of being expelled for disciplinary reasons (Rocque and Snellings, 2018). However, racial discrimination also plays a large role. When SROs’ roles are not properly established and communicated by SRO programs, they tend to become involved in student discipline because they believe that disobedient students of African American origin are “unsalvageable” and likely to end up in jail (Rocque and Snelling, 2018; Finn et al., 2005). Neuroscientific evidence suggests that SRO officers, 69 percent of whom are white as a result of gentrification, naturally show less empathy towards students of color, members of their out-group, than white students, members of their in-group (Shen et al., 2018; Education Week Research Center, 2018). The introduction of more police presence as a result of gentrification will only amplify the negative attitude SROs have towards the “unsalvageable” students (Leguichard, 2019). As racial bias is directly linked to brain parts that manage emotions and cognition, it may be difficult for SROs to resist their urge to send minority students to jail as a preventative, risk-reducing measure.

           Another mechanism of amplifying the Stpp that is highly influenced by gentrification is the enforcement of zero tolerance policies (ZTPs). SROs in public schools in gentrified regions are more likely to incorporate punitive measures such as ZTPs in response to disciplinary problems (Welch and Payne, 2010). The creation of ZTPs, combined with the ‘hot spot’ policing in these schools, allows SROs to punish more students. The direct result is an expanded school-to-prison pipeline that makes minority students more likely to drop out of or fail high school, be involved in crimes, and have less opportunity to be employed in the future (Fabelo et al., 2011; Kupchik, 2009; Rocque and Snelling, 2018).

Overall, gentrification introduces wealthy, white families into an area of racial minorities, leading to an increase in the number of white SROs. As a result of implicit racial bias, the failure of schools to effectively communicate their roles, and the selective application of ZTPs, gentrification allows for more opportunities for SROs to feed students of racial minorities into the criminal justice system. It follows that schools should enhance SRO training to prevent implicit racial bias incidents; however, this may be difficult due to the innate nature of racial bias. Although many studies show that racial bias training leads to reduced bias in the short term, they do not suggest that this effect can last in the long term (Devine et al., 2012). Alternatively, a decrease in gentrification can subsequently reduce the influx of white SROs into predominantly colored schools, which would eliminate the opportunity for police to profile students in the first place. These propositions in tandem may greatly mitigate the flow of the Stpp.

The Role of Gentrification in the Over Policing of Neighborhoods

Gentrification also has interesting implications for the role of police presence. Social dynamic changes can lead to a change in the number of police present in an area or the police’s aggression in enforcing laws. The latter is a trend seen across gentrifying neighborhoods in America (Laniyonu, 2018). A leading theory for the positive correlation between gentrification and aggression in policing is the ‘postindustrial policing hypothesis,’ which argues that patterns of policing aggressiveness are results of top-level municipal strategies that aim to bring in middle to upper class white families with education (Laniyonu, 2018; Zuk, 2015). Thus, not only does gentrification drive the influx of white families while pushing socioeconomic minorities out, but it also causes shifts in attitudes of policing to amplify the relocation process.

Under the guise of ‘revitalization,’ municipal authorities across the country drive the influx of families of higher socioeconomic status, typically at the cost of minorities - a direct snapshot of gentrification-promoting policies. As a result, policing is widely used as a tool in the revitalization process. Therefore, gentrification changes policing patterns in a fashion where it increases aggression in order to accelerate gentrification: a positive feedback loop  (Laniyonu, 2018).

Specifically, gentrification causes changes in policing by changing municipal policing strategies. Municipal police departments deliberately prepare parts of the city for gentrification or inherently transition to aggressive policing as a result of the socioeconomic change gentrification produces (Sharp, 2013). As a nod to racial bias in action, these overaggressive practices are designed to cleanse the neighborhood from poor perceptions, by addressing fears of crime, perceptions of social disorder, and behavior disruptive to “regular residents” (Sharp, 2013). Such behavior is a proxy used by police departments to enhance gentrification. Specifically, those overaggressive practices are maintained by policies to maintain ‘quality of life,’ formally known as a strategy called Order Maintenance Policing (OMP) (Laniyonu, 2018). OMP enables local police to transition away from prioritizing serious offenses and upholding detachment between police and bureaucracy; instead, the OMP strategy directs police to increase aggression, overpolice petty offenses, and take preventative measures to inhibit “disorder” (Laniyonu, 2018). The long-term result of the OMP approach is a dissipation in trust with police, increased punitive measures for low-level offenses, and decreased social tolerance - all for the sake of social control under the guise of creating an image of high ‘quality of life’ (Vitale, 2008). Bluntly, the OMP strategy gives police carte blanche to police based on racial biases, which is exactly how law enforcement becomes alienated from the communities they are meant to serve.

Police response to gentrifier demands also amplifies over policing. As social dynamics change, the police feel a sense of peer pressure to crack down on suspicious activity reported by gentrifiers (Laniyonu, 2018). A greater demand for policing from gentrifiers leads the police to believe that there is more suspicious activity, resulting in more investigation and more arrests, amplifying over policing. This phenomenon can be explained with fMRI data. Peer influence can result in greater connectivity between the anterior insular cortex (AIC) and the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), brain regions that regulate emotions and cognition (Sherman et al., 2019). The presentation of peer opinions can also influence people’s views on a certain issue, making them more likely to conform to these opinions (Wake et al., 2019). Conformity to peers is positively correlated with activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC), the lateral superior temporal gyrus (STG), and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which are brain areas associated with cognition (Wake et al., 2019). It can be concluded that the influence of peer pressure is greatly associated with brain areas involved in cognition, and that conformity to peer influence is natural and innate.

The effect of peer pressure on over policing can be demonstrated by examining the rate and location of 311 calls - a subsidiary of 911 calls for community disagreements or issues. Empirically, 311 calls in New York for offenses within the scope of the OMP strategy were significantly higher from gentrifying areas along with crime rates, suggesting that over policing was directly influenced by citizen demand, confirming previous findings (Laniyonu, 2018). Furthermore, to solidify the causality of citizen demand on police behavior, observing the rates of policing before and after the influx of gentrifiers will establish reverse causality; that is, the arrival of gentrifiers should increase the previous level of policing. Indeed, a five-year study on the NYPD found that police summons and arrests increased threefold in low socioeconomic status communities after a large influx of white residents with police responding to the complaints 92.5 percent of the time (Community Service Society, 2019). Thus, gentrification directly increases over policing with citizen demands of gentrifiers as the vehicle for aggression.

Overall, policing in neighborhoods seems to read and react to the predominant demographic in residents. As gentrification changes social dynamics, police departments increase their aggression in enforcement of the law by both shifting to the OMP policing strategy and accommodating citizen demands of gentrifiers; the result is a positive feedback loop where gentrification is accelerated. Both of these approaches to increasing aggression are dangerously prone to racial bias. The OMP strategy seems to dismantle neutrality that police training is meant to achieve; this allows suspicion to be enough to take action. Gentrifier demands for controlling perceived threats and suspicious activity encourages more police presence via 311 calls that are not only almost always responded to by police, but also significantly increase arrests of minorities. Because of the difficulty for the police to restrain their urge to conform to gentrifier opinions and to maintain neutrality, as suggested by fMRI data and evidence regarding racial bias training, gentrification must be reduced in order to reliably lower over policing in neighborhoods.

Conclusion and Suggestions for Future Research

           As gentrification is rapidly accelerating, policymakers must be considerate of its harmful effects in public schools and neighborhoods. An influx of white families with high socioeconomic status into an area inhabited by mostly racial minorities can lead to an increase in the number of white SROs and gentrifiers who demand aggressive policing towards the minorities. Combined with implicit racial bias among the white gentrifiers, gentrification can result in the creation of ZTPs by SROs, which send more minority students into the Stpp, increasing high school dropout rates and the chance of future criminal activity. In the context of neighborhoods, gentrification is connected with the use of more aggressive policing tactics, significantly increasing the rate of incarceration of residents. Although racial bias training may help reduce Stpp and over policing, it may not be reliable because of the innate nature of implicit racial bias and the use of the OMP strategy. Instead, we suggest that future research should aim to evaluate policies that reduce gentrification, which cuts out the source of implicit racial bias. For example, an experimental proposal in New York to mitigate gentrification is the implementation of zoning regulations that taper the difficulty for displacement across the city combined with redevelopment of areas on the verge of vacancies to prevent new gentrifiers (Marcuse, 1985; Rose, 2002). Attacking gentrification at its root is likely the single most promising approach to eliminating the infamous axis of housing, schooling, and racial bias.


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