As a child, sociologist Rashawn Ray aspired to attend medical school, following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother—both retired nurses who dedicated their lives to the health and welfare of others. However, he took a sociology course as a freshman at the University of Memphis and became enamored with diagnosing cures for the social ills that plague humanity.
Swapping his white coat for a suit and tie, Ray, a AAAS Member and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, aims to understand health disparities linked to systemic racism, namely why black men don’t exercise in “white spaces.”
To investigate, Ray—then a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017—began frequenting gyms, parks and fitness groups to get a pulse on varying attitudes about exercise across racial backgrounds. Next, he surveyed 500 college-educated black and white adults about their attitudes on working out as well as the diversity of their neighborhoods. In addition, he collected zip codes to overlay perceived racial composition with actual demographic data. This brought a striking statistic to light.
“Everyone overestimates the number of black people they see in their neighborhood,” Ray says. “White men do it at a rate of two to one. In their minds, they double the number of black people they actually saw.”
This mindset amplifies other assumptions people might make about a black man running down the street of a white neighborhood.
“People might view them as a threat,” Ray says. “It’s not because they are doing anything wrong. It’s because of the way stereotypes operate in people's minds.”
Black men in white neighborhoods report hesitancy about exercising, a decision that could contribute to countless health risks. On average, black people are more likely to be obese than their white counterparts, increasing their chances of dying from heart disease or stroke.
Black people are also 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police when they aren’t attacking and don’t have a weapon, Ray cites.
With this in mind, the University of Maryland has teamed up with Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google, in creating training for police officers to practice de-escalation and communication in a virtual reality environment. The platform will incorporate new studies and input from the Lab of Applied Social Science Research (LASSR), led by Ray, who has done extensive work in recent years on policing and racial bias. Numerous factors, including the mental health of police forces, contribute to instances of law enforcement violence, Ray has found.
“We have data that shows when officers have not eaten or slept that they potentially use more force. They yell at people more,” Ray adds. “Hurt people hurt people, and police officers are not robots. They are human beings.”
Those human beings aren’t always prepared to troubleshoot situations in the field, especially ones with “heightened ambiguity,” he says.
For example, there’s little difference across race and gender in how officers treat an obvious victim of a crime. However, in cases of confusion over who is at fault, black people are more likely to be targeted by officers with prejudice. These biases, Ray explains, exist in similar proportions even among black officers.
“When there’s minimal understanding of a situation, people enter stereotypes and they discriminate,” he adds.
Eventually, Ray’s lab will use Jigsaw’s virtual settings to measure physiological reactions of police officers to different challenges. This could include capturing data on heart rate or measuring saliva for levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Such testing, Ray says, could be leveraged to make informed decisions about which officers patrol the streets and who sits behind a desk at the station.
Opportunities like this—to see his research applied in the real world—is the fuel that keeps Ray excited about the next project. As a result, he often speaks to the media, writes op-eds in national publications and testifies before state and federal governments on topics ranging from racial equity to criminal justice reform. Outside of academia, Ray serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution where his research helps influence public policy.
Recently, Ray testified before Congress on ways to use virtual reality to reduce racial disparities in policing and traffic stops. Previously, he's stood before the Maryland state legislature, demonstrating how reparations might atone for slavery and close the racial wealth gap.
He's often asked to step in and provide context on current events. In light of Ahmaud Arbery's death, for example, Ray was interviewed by NPR's All Things Considered about his research on the ways black men try to appear as non-threatening. A month later, he was profiled by the Washington Post for his ideas on police reform and has been cited by MSNBC on the same topic.
“Academics—sociologists in particular—are not in the types of spaces where decisions are being made that govern our lives,” he says. “I want to try to fill that gap.”