Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



First Adviser

Packer, Dominic J.


The present research investigated White Americans’ legitimizing reasoning about police violence against Blacks. Legitimizing reasoning about police violence is conceptualized as the processes through which individuals appraise an incident of police violence against Blacks as legitimate, and downplay police and national responsibility for the occurrence of violence and violation of egalitarian values. I proposed a conceptual model that identifies psychological antecedents and motivational factors, specifically motives to protect America’s image and maintain racial hierarchy, which drive legitimizing reasoning. I hypothesized that White Americans high in motivation to maintain racial hierarchy (assessed by social dominance orientation, SDO) would tend to downplay both the severity of social injustice incidents and the moral responsibility of an ingroup authority (i.e., police) in order to legitimize inequality. In contrast, White Americans high in motivation to protect the group image (assessed by national identification, ID) would remain relatively objective in terms of cognitive assessment of specific incidents and only downplay police and national responsibility in order to protect the positive national image from moral violations by an ingroup authority (i.e., illegitimate police actions). In four studies, American citizens read about a violent police incident where a single police officer shot an unarmed target. Study 1 investigated if individuals high in ID or high in SDO tended to minimize police and national responsibility even with a compliant (vs. non-compliant) Black target. Study 2 orthogonally manipulated group moral affirmation and the target’s behavioral compliance, and examined if group affirmation (i.e., being reminded of moral vs. immoral aspects of American history) would increase inferences about police and national responsibility through acknowledgement of police racism among White Americans high in ID. Study 3 explored the roles of target race and availability of a system-justifying cue (i.e., the good vs. bad reputation of the police department involved in the incident) in downplaying police and national responsibility for police shootings especially among high SDO White Americans. Study 4 tested if high SDO White Americans would strategically re-conceptualize the Americanness of African Americans (vs. White Americans) in order to legitimize police shootings. Three out of the four studies supported the predictions that national ID and SDO give rise to judgments that downplay police and national responsibility for police shootings via different routes. In line with predictions, High SDO individuals tended to appraise the shooting incident as legitimate, deny police racism and in turn minimize police and national responsibility for police shootings. This pattern persisted even in face of a compliant Black target (Studies 1 and 2), and was intensified when an opportunity to justify police systems was available (Study 3). In contrast, strongly (nationally) identified individuals were hypothesized to show no difference in appraisals of a single incident relative to weakly identified individuals, but they would tend to deny police racism as well as police and national responsibility for police shootings. Results indicated that the form of national ID (pride vs. centrality) had distinct effects. Behavioral compliance of the target, unexpectedly, facilitated illegitimacy appraisals of the shooting among those high in national pride (Studies 1 and 2), whereas group moral affirmation facilitated acknowledgment of the police shooting issue among those high in identity centrality (Study 2). The general discussion focuses on the differences in the role of SDO vs. national ID in legitimization of police shootings and two distinct forms of national ID.

Available for download on Friday, August 14, 2020