You are walking alone down a busy city street when you notice a group of people fighting ahead of you. Would you feel safer if you had other people with you?

For most of us, the answer to this question is an easy “yes.” The relative safety of numbers feels true, even obvious. Yet, as with many privileges in the United States, our research suggests that whether people are actually safer in groups may depend on the color of their skin.

In our first study that tested this idea, we asked people to give their gut evaluations of Black and White people who were alone, as well as their evaluations of those same people when viewed within groups. Results revealed a consistent pattern: participants judged images of Black people who were in groups to be significantly more threatening and aggressive than the same Black people viewed alone. In contrast, regardless of whether White people were viewed alone or in groups, they were evaluated as relatively less threatening and aggressive.

One reason that seeing people in groups increases racial stereotyping is that stereotypes are, by definition, traits that are applied to people because of their group memberships, such as their race. Thus, viewing people in groups seems to set these stereotyping processes into motion. For example, our data revealed that people think that Black people in groups, compared to Black people viewed alone, are more “typical of Black people.” As a result, racial stereotypes and prejudice seem to apply to Black people in groups more than to Black people who are by themselves.

Since we conducted this initial study, racial disparities in policing—from unlawful stops to murders—have captured the public’s attention and sparked an eruption of anti-racist social movements. Because many of these tumultuous police-civilian interactions have involved Black people in groups—for example, in protests—we began to wonder whether Black people in groups might be particularly likely to experience an escalation of force when interacting with law enforcement.

As a first step, we acquired data that documented millions of police stops that occurred under New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Under this policy, police were allowed to stop civilians who had not done anything wrong as long as the officer merely suspected that they might do something wrong. This policy was later ruled unconstitutional.

Critically, during the stop-and-frisk era, for each stop, officers recorded the race of the person they stopped, whether the person was alone or in a group, and whether the stop escalated to outcomes such as use of force. Using this freely available data from the NYPD, we found that the adage “safety in numbers” didn’t apply to Black people. Black people who were stopped in groups were significantly more likely to be frisked, searched, arrested, or have force used against them than White people stopped in groups. And, although Black people stopped when by themselves were also more likely to experience escalating force than white people, it was to a lesser degree than Black people stopped in groups.

When we have presented these findings to the public, some people have questioned whether it’s possible that Black people in groups were more likely to evoke strong police reactions than White people in groups because Black people in groups were more likely to be “up to no good.” If so, the racial disparities we observed in police-civilian escalation may not reveal racism but rather appropriate policing. To try to account for this possibility, we examined data about whether a given police stop led to the discovery of illegal drugs or weapons—a signal that the person stopped was actually up to no good. These data showed that the stops that were most likely to result in discovery of illegal drugs or weapons involved White groups, followed by White individuals. In short, stops involving White people were most likely to result in objective evidence of wrongdoing.

As anti-racism protests emerge anew across the United States, social media has allowed us to witness Black people within groups pulled out of cars, beaten, and arrested—a reminder that the very act of battling racism may unleash racism’s fullest fury. Likewise, these acts of violence force us to reckon with the fact that not everyone finds safety in numbers. Instead, for Black people, numbers may increase the likelihood of systemic injustice.

For Further Reading

Cooley, E., Hester, N., Cipolli, W., Rivera, L., Abrams, K., Pagan, J., Sommers, S., & Payne, B.K. (2019). Racial biases in officers’ decisions to frisk are amplified for Black people stopped among groups leading to similar biases in searches, arrests, and use of force. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(6), 761-769.

Erin Cooley is a faculty member at Colgate University who studies intergroup conflict and inequality.