During Tough Economic Times, Blacks are Viewed as Darker by Non-Blacks

truth color blindnessWhen times are tough, non-Black people view Blacks as darker and  “more stereotypically Black” in appearance — and even are stingier with allocating money to them, according to the results of a cleverly conceived study by researchers from New York University.

“Racial disparities on socioeconomic indices expand dramatically during economic recession. Although prior explanations for this phenomenon have focused on institutional causes, our research reveals that perceived scarcity influences people’s visual representations of race in a way that may promote discrimination,” write the authors, Amy Krosch, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Psychology, and David M. Amodio.

The researchers devised four different studies to test their hypothesis. In the first two studies, they found that scarcity altered perceptions of race, lowering subjects’ psychophysical threshold for seeing a mixed-race face as “Black” as opposed to “white.” In studies 3 and 4, scarcity led subjects to visualize African-American faces as darker and more “stereotypically Black,” compared with a control condition. In addition, their perception of the darkness of Blacks influenced how much money they allocated in a controlled experiment.

“The study’s findings point to a new challenge to discrimination reduction since perceptual effects appear to operate without a person’s awareness,” Krosch told the Star-Ledger. “People typically assume that what they see is an accurate representation of the world, so if their initial perceptions of race are actually distorted by economic factors, people may not even realize the potential for bias.”

In the study design, the researchers first had female and male non-Black people complete a questionnaire assessing their concerns about economic competition between Black and white Americans (e.g., “When Blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically.” The assessment was contained in a questionnaire that was otherwise irrelevant to race so they couldn’t know what the test was really about.

Next the participants viewed on a computer screen a series of 110 faces that ranged in racial content from 100 percent white to 100 percent Black at 11 different increments. Faces were presented one at a time, in random order, and subjects were asked to identify whether each face was Black or white.

Subjects who more strongly believed in competition between whites and Blacks had a lower threshold for identifying mixed-race faces as Black than did subjects who did not hold these zero-sum views.

In another test, before subjects saw each face, researchers briefly (20 milliseconds) flashed different types of words on the screen—”subliminal primes” that were scarcity-related words (scarce, resource, sparse, limited), neutral words (fluffy, appetite, scenic, antique), or negative words that were unrelated to scarcity (brutal, confront, odious, fragile).

Subjects in the scarcity-primed condition had a significantly lower threshold for identifying mixed-race faces as Black than those in either the neutral or negative conditions, that is, they identified a face as “Black” when it contained only 35 percent Black content. Subjects in the neutral and negative conditions identified faces as Black when they had at least 41 percent or 43 percent Black content, respectively). In other words, faces became blacker when linked to economic scarcity—and significantly more so than when connected to general negativity.

In another experiment testing the views of white adults randomly selected in a city park, subjects were told “people often make important decisions about others based on very little information” and that the researchers were interested in how a person’s deservingness can be discerned from appearance alone. Subjects viewed the faces created in an earlier study side-by-side and indicated how they would divide $15 between them. The subjects allocated significantly less money to the person depicted by the face visualized under conditions of scarcity.

“Together, our results provide strong converging evidence for the role of perceptual biases as a mechanism through which economic scarcity enhances discrimination and contributes to racial disparities,” the authors write.

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