This probably comes as no surprise to some of you given how, in general, black men are portrayed in media as violent and threatening. However, a new study published by the American Psychological Association Monday is adding credibility to the claim, noting that people do indeed have a tendency to perceive black men as larger and more threatening than white men of the same height and weight.
The study found that nonblack participants were also prone to believing that black men are more capable of physical harm than white men of the same size, also noting that nonblack observers believe that police would be more justified in use of force on these black men, even if the men are unarmed, than on their white counterparts.
“Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot,” lead author John Paul Wilson of Montclair State University said in a press release. “Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.”
Researchers conducted a series of experiments with more than 950 online participants from the United States, where individuals were shown color photos of the faces of white and black men, all of equal height and weight, and then asked to guess the height, weight, strength and overall muscularity of the men in the pictures.
The estimates were consistently biased, Wilson noted.
“We found that these estimates were consistently biased. Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size,” said Wilson. “Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed.”
One only has to look back at Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed on a Cleveland playground in November 2014 while holding a replica gun, to see the heavy implications of such described bias.
Tamir was described as “menacing” by Steve Loomis, president of Cleveland’s Police Patrolman’s Association.
“Tamir Rice is in the wrong,” Loomis told Politico magazine in 2015. “He’s menacing. He’s 5 feet 7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.”
Then-Police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, described the 18-year-old, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall and 292 pounds, as having “the most intense, aggressive face.”
“The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked,” Wilson, who himself was 6 feet 4 inches tall and 210 pounds, testified before a grand jury that later declined to charge him in Brown’s death. “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”
Trayvon Martin, 17, who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012 in Sanford, Fla., was all of a sudden a potential criminal who was getting into fights, getting high on marijuana and getting suspended from school prior to his death, Zimmerman’s defense would have had you believe.
The bias found in the American Psychological Association study was not limited to nonblack participants. Black participants also displayed some bias. However, according to Wilson, while they judged young black men as more muscular than young white men, they did not perceive them as more harmful or deserving of force.
And the issue is not just a black-and-white one, researchers noted. Black men with darker skin and more “stereotypically black” features were often deemed larger than those who had lighter skin.
“We found that men with darker skin and more stereotypically black facial features tended to be most likely to elicit biased size perceptions, even though they were actually no larger than men with lighter skin and less stereotypical facial features,” Wilson pointed out. “Thus, the size bias doesn’t rely just on a white versus black group boundary. It also varies within black men according to their facial features.”
Although Wilson notes that the bias may be one contributor in police decisions to shoot black men, even when they’re unarmed, he cautions that the study did not simulate real-world threat scenarios that actual officers face and said that more research should be conducted on if and how the bias does function in potentially fatal situations and other police interactions, the study notes.
Read more at the American Psychological Association.