Even Black 5-Year-Olds Are Not Safe From Racial Bias

Research published in a psychology journal showed that seeing the faces of black boys, even as young as 5, triggered thoughts of guns and violence in study participants.

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Research inspired by the alarmingly frequent deaths of young black people, particularly young men, in the U.S. at the hands of police suggests that even black children as young as 5 are thought to be aggressive and dangerous, a press release on Eureka Alert notes

The study, which is published in the February issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that people are more likely to mistake a toy for a weapon if it is in the hands of a black person rather than a white person, even if that person is a 5-year-old. 

“Our findings suggest that, although young children are typically viewed as harmless and innocent, seeing faces of five-year-old Black boys appears to trigger thoughts of guns and violence,” lead study author Andrew Todd, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa, wrote, according to the release. 

Todd, along with University of Iowa colleagues Kelsey Thiem and Rebecca Neel, started the series of studies after observing the countless shooting deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. 

“In this case, it was the alarming rate at which young African Americans—particularly young Black males—are shot and killed by police in the U.S.,” Todd wrote. “Although such incidents have multiple causes, one potential contributor is that young Black males are stereotypically associated with violence and criminality.”

Todd and his colleagues wanted to see if this mentality extended to black children. And so they presented 64 white college students with two images that flashed rapidly on a monitor. The first image was a photograph of a child’s face, which they were told to ignore because it was just a cue for the second image that would appear next. When the second image flashed, the participants were supposed to identify whether it was a gun or a toy, like a rattle. The photographs of children used included those of six 5-year-old black boys and six 5-year-old white boys. 

The results showed that participants labeled the second item a gun more quickly after seeing a black child’s face than after seeing a white child’s face. Participants also reportedly misidentified toys as weapons more often after seeing images of black boys. 

In a second set of experiments, 131 white college students were shown the faces of both children and adults before being asked to identify the second image as either a tool or a gun.

Once again, the results showed great bias. After seeing a black face, regardless of whether it was an adult face or a child’s face, participants were quicker to classify the item as a gun and were more likely to mistakenly categorize nonthreatening items as guns. 

The final experiment Todd and colleagues conducted involved word association, and the results suggest that threat-related words, such as “violent,” “dangerous,” “hostile” and “aggressive,” were more likely to be associated with images of young black boys than with images of their white counterparts. 

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