From every angle, the photographs of New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina captured black people waiting for help—on overpasses and rooftops, in the Superdome and convention center, at bus terminals and airports, everywhere. One year later, evaluations of governments’ responses to Katrina confirmed that help indeed dragged its feet.

Although incompetence and lack of preparation certainly stalled relief, racism was also a likely culprit, suggest the findings of three recent psychology experiments. Across these studies, “white participants were less likely and slower to help black people than white people—particularly in a severe emergency,” says E. Ashby Plant, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and one of the study’s authors. “Black participants didn’t do this,” she adds, noting that black participants responded to both black and white victims with equal frequency and speed.

The studies further showed why white participants tarried in their cross-racial rescues: “White students lack experience with black people and know the negative cultural stereotypes about them,” and so they are apprehensive about interacting, says Plant. To justify their failure to act, white participants then underplayed the severity of the emergency—just as the Bush administration initially underreported the damage in post-Katrina New Orleans.

For the studies, Plant and graduate student Jonathan Kunstman crafted a dramatic scenario. Undergraduate participants believed that they were solving puzzles with a fellow student in a different room, which they observed through a closed-circuit television. In reality, participants were viewing a carefully scripted video of either a black or white actor who, in the course of the experiment, fell out of her or his chair with a painful cry. The actor then proceeded to moan, pant, and curse off camera. In variations of this basic formula, the researchers manipulated the degree of the actor’s presumed injury and the race of the participants.

Although white participants on average helped black participants less and more slowly than they helped white victims, felt worse about helping across racial lines, and viewed the plight of black victims as less dire than that of white ones, “most white participants did help,” says Plant. “The question is, how do we make more white people respond, and respond more quickly?” She suggests that, in crises: “You have to make clear the need for help and encourage people to make it their responsibility. Even with Katrina, once it became clear how horrible things were, people started to step up.”

Dispelling the deep-seated antipathies that drive inaction, however, requires a longer-lived intervention: lots of friendly contact across racial lines. “You’re not going to have that negative effect if, when you see a black person, you think, ‘Oh, she’s like my friend Cindy,’” she says.

Jonathan Kunstman and E. Ashby Plant, “Racing to Help: Racial Bias in High Emergency Helping Situations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 2008.

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