Through a Different Lens: Use of Terror Management Theory to Understand Blacks' and Whites' Divergent Interpretations of Race-Related Events

By Parker, Ashley; Taylor, Matthew J. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Through a Different Lens: Use of Terror Management Theory to Understand Blacks' and Whites' Divergent Interpretations of Race-Related Events


Parker, Ashley, Taylor, Matthew J., The Western Journal of Black Studies


On Saturday, August 9th, 2014, a White police officer shot and killed a Black, unarmed 18-year-old male in broad daylight in the middle of a residential street. While many mourned Michael Brown's death and were incensed by the apparent injustice, others rose in staunch support of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Days after the shooting, a report entitled, "Stark Racial Divisions in Reactions to Ferguson Police Shooting" was issued (Pew Research Center, 2014). According to this report, 80 percent of Blacks indicated that Michael Brown's case raised important issues about race while only 37 percent of Whites provided that same endorsement. Data suggested that Whites were more apt to believe that race "is getting more attention than it deserves" (Pew Research Center, 2014). Notably, similar differences in opinion emerged between Blacks and Whites in regard to whether the shooting of Trayvon Martin was justified (Washington Post, 2013), agreement with George Zimmerman's acquittal (Pew Research Center, 2013), and reactions to O.J. Simpson's not guilty verdict (Washington Post, 1995). The drastic divide in Blacks' and Whites' interpretations of these incendiary race-related events poses critical questions about why the racial chasm exists, the harm such a gap may be causing and/or reflecting, and how to bridge what may seem to be a considerable impasse. The current paper attempts to shed light on these very questions.

Race is a culturally constructed paradigm that is deeply embedded in the history and culture of the United States. As a facet of individual and collective identity, race can profoundly influence social perceptions, interpretations, and interactions. In the United States, Black and White racial identities are often associated with drastically different personal, vicarious, and historical experiences (Franklin, 2014; Ikard, 2013; Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Klarman, 2007; Weizmann, 2004). Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that Blacks and Whites not only exist in different perceptual worlds, but in separate--and unequal--real worlds (Orelus, 2013; Rohde & Guest, 2013; Sigelman & Welch, 1991; Smith & Seltzer, 2000). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these varied historical experiences and present circumstances have contributed to differences in opinion between Blacks and Whites. For example, the aforementioned public opinion polling regarding controversial race-related events illustrates the highly variant group-level interpretations that Black and White Americans report. These trends are far from new, as decades of social science research have accumulated strong evidence that Blacks identify racism and discrimination to be major problems while Whites consider them to be minor or not problems at all (Fournier & Haines, 2008; King, 2015; Kluegel & Smith, 1986; Knowles, Lowery, Chow, & Unzueta, 2014; Norton & Sommers, 2011; Page & Risser, 2008; Smith & Seltzer, 2000).

Practically, these differential interpretations may be harmful insofar as they may widen the preexisting gap between Blacks and Whites, thereby exacerbating interracial tension and diminishing opportunity for shared understanding and communality. The current paper suggests that a continued focus on racial "differences" overlooks the fact that a more common process is afoot: namely, these divergent views at their core result from defensive responses to existential threat and anxiety. To this point, we connect the social-cognitive framework with Terror Management Theory (TMT) to more deeply understand how the enactment of and steadfast adherence to worldview serves as a psychological coping mechanism in the face of humans' unique awareness of their inevitable deaths. We assert that this terror management function of worldview is a significant contributor to the divergent perspectives that have emerged between Blacks and Whites in response to Michael Brown's death. Finally, we suggest that engaging in a discussion around the death-denying function of worldview and the impact of existential threats (such as mortality salience and alternative worldviews) on worldview adherence is a valuable addition to the discussion of race and race-related events in America. …

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