You’ve heard it before: All Look Same. This isn’t just some racist joke kids taunt on playgrounds, pulling the corners of their eyes and putting on unmistakably Asian accent. It’s actually a psychological phenomena known as Out-of-Group Homogeneity, and paired with the Cross-Race Effect, it explains why folks struggle to differentiate people outside of their own race. Essentially, interracial interactions are based on features only, while intraracial interactions are holistic–you literally take the person at face value if they’re outside your race, but if they’re within your race you see them as a whole, individual person. So it’s not an inherently racist statement, and it leads us to consider the larger psychological basis for mixing up people of the same race or even racial profiling.
So you’re an average New Yorker wasting time on your phone when you get this emergency alert.
Note that there was no photo attached, so New Yorkers needed to look up images on their own time. Images have flooded the media now, but initially, there weren’t too many photos available and so citizens were left with nothing but an Arab-sounding name and an age. (Fun fact, another result of the Cross-Race Effect is that people struggle to accurately guess the age of folks of different races! So the odds of someone accurately determining Rahami’s age based on a picture are somewhat slim.)
“By sending out an alert like this, which lacks critical context and information, people are left with only their imagination and previous biases to judge who “Ahmad Khan Rahami” might be. In a single moment, suddenly everybody who appears to be Muslim and/or Middle Eastern becomes a suspect.”
Lachenal cites the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, when Sunil Tripathi was mistaken for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Daily Beast ran a story on his family in April of 2015, check it out here. People searched incessantly for Tripathi, who didn’t show up, primarily because he was dead. He’d killed himself a month before the bombings even happened.
Let’s be clear: police were able to apprehend Rahami because a citizen saw him and called for help. But when we consider the number of young black men stopped (and arrested or killed) because they matched the brief description of a suspect, we can understand why an emergency alert with a lack of details is concerning.