Psychological Study: Whites Associate Black Faces as Young as 5 with Violence, Criminality

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(Photo : Flickr/ woodleywonderworks)
(Photo: Flickr/ woodleywonderworks)

A revealing yet disturbing study on implicit racial bias in society sheds light on white stereotypes regarding Black criminality and attitudes toward Black children.  The study, conducted by University of Iowa researchers and published in the journal Psychological Science, found that people are more likely to misidentify a toy as a weapon when the face of the person they see is Black rather than white.  And that person can be a Black child as young as five years 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,” said Andrew Todd, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa and author of the study, according to Business Standard. Todd, along with colleagues Kelsey Thiem and Rebecca Neel, conducted the research after making some real life observations.

“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.,” he added.

In their study, the researchers provided 64 white college students with two images flashing on a screen in rapid succession — first a photo of a child’s face, which they were told to ignore, then a second image.  After the second image appeared, the participants were supposed to tell whether the object they saw was a gun or a toy.  The results indicated that the subjects in the experiment more hastily identified guns after viewing a Black child’s face than after seeing a white child’s face.  In addition, the students erroneously identified toys as guns more frequently after viewing the images of Black boys, and falsely categorized weapons as toys after looking at a face of a white child.

Another test found that threatening words such as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “hostile” were more closely associated with images of Black boys than with white boys.

“One of the most pernicious stereotypes of Black Americans, particularly Black men, is that they are hostile and violent,” the authors wrote, hoping to determine in future studies if similar results apply to Black women and girls, and participants of other races who are not college students.

Some observers have called the results of this important study heartbreaking.

“I’ve also seen studies where whites are shown to believe that Blacks are more likely to have higher levels of pain tolerance, to be genetically faster, stronger, than whites,” Arnold Woods, a member of the Des Moines NAACP, told the Press-Citizen. “Again, to me, that just points to a stereotype of Blacks either being less than human or more than human, but never just human. When a 5-year-old child elicits a response of  ‘threat,’ then personal biases need to seriously be examined.”

“I would challenge people in our community to monitor their reaction to hearing the results of this study, face the feelings of discomfort of hearing about this unsettling aspect of how Black men experience living in this society, and consider how they might contribute to productive ways of unlearning these stereotypes,” said Sherry Watt, a professor of education at the University of Iowa and a faculty fellow for the University of Iowa’s Chief Diversity Office, to the Press-Citizen.

This most recent study mirrors prior research demonstrating that Black boys are viewed by whites — and white police officers — as older, less innocent and more culpable than their white peers.  Such disturbing trends help us to realize the extent to which these toxic racial attitudes are so subconsciously ingrained in society, thanks to the media and social conditioning, and how these thoughts and perceptions translate into negative policy outcomes for Black folks.  It allows us to understand why Black children are more likely to face school discipline and an introduction to the criminal justice system, and why Black people, and Black men and boys specifically, often wind up with a police bullet to the head.  These are the circumstances that create more Tamir Rices. And this is why Black parents have “that talk” with their sons about encountering the police, and why they hug their babies everyday, lest they see them today for the last time.

If we are not careful, we could have genocide on our hands and not even know it.

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