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New Study: Whites Associate Black Male-Sounding Names with Violence, Large Size, Low Socioeconomic Status


Credit: Image courtesy of University of California – Los Angeles


A new study adds to the growing body of evidence that Black-sounding names are associated with negative stereotypes of Black people among whites.

The latest study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, found that whites are more likely to perceive men with Black-sounding names as dangerous, violent and physically large when compared to people with stereotypically white-sounding names.

The study, called “Looming large in others’ eyes: Racial stereotypes illuminate dual adaptations for representing threat versus prestige as physical size,” was written by Colin Holbrook and Daniel M. T. Fessler of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Carlos David Navarrete of Michigan State University.  Dr. Holbrook, lead author of the report, told the Huffington Post he has “never been so disgusted” by his own data.

“The participant sample, despite being slightly left of center politically, automatically attributed violence to individuals based solely on having names like Darnell or Juan; whereas names such as Connor automatically led to expectations of prestige and status,” Holbrook said. “This seems to clearly echo the fear of black and Latino men in our society, which is ironic and disturbing as they are often the victims of violence–precisely because people are afraid of them.”

The researchers conducted a series of experiments with a group of 1,500 mostly white adults.  The first experiment asked participants to read one of two nearly identical scenarios in which the main character bumped into a man in a bar, and the latter angrily reacted by saying, “Watch where you’re going, a–hole!”  In the first version of the story, the character was named Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell, while in the other, his name was either Connor, Wyatt or Garrett.

Meanwhile, the second scenario involved the same narrative, except that the main character was described as a successful business owner or college graduate. In both instances, the subjects were asked to provide their impressions on the main character’s physical measurements and attributes, status, aggressiveness and other characteristics.  The participants found that Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell were larger in size and more aggressive than Connor, Wyatt or Garrett.

Further, the third experiment replaced Black- and white-sounding names with Latino- and East Asian-sounding names.  Most of those who participated in the study imagined Latinos to be larger, more violent and with a lower socio-economic level than Asians.

“In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status,” Fessler said.  “However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men. For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big and big equals dangerous, period.”

“The surprising finding was the difference between the white and black characters with respect to violence and status,” Holbrook told the Huffington Post.  “Put simply, white characters with names like Connor or Garrett could be imagined as somewhat violent, but this did not lower (or affect) the amount of social prestige that they were imagined to have,” he said. “By contrast, if black characters with names like Darnell or DeShawn were imagined as having a temper, this was strongly incompatible with the amount of status that they were imagined to have in society. We initially expected tendencies toward violence to lower the status attributed to the white characters, too, but this was not the case.”

In other words, in the view of the whites taking part in the study, big Black men are violent, and big white men are more important.

Such studies can help in making society more aware of racial stereotypes and possibly devising methods of controlling them and ensuring they do not influence decision making and policymaking.  This latest report comes as one recent study showed that local governments discriminate against people with African-American-sounding names.  Researchers found that email requests for information from school districts, libraries and sheriff’s offices were less likely to receive a reply if the request was made by someone with a “Black-sounding” name.

According to another study, teachers were more likely to view students with stereotypically Black names as “troublemakers,” helping to explain why Black students are expelled and suspended three times as often as whites.  And yet another study concluded that job applicants with Black-sounding names were less likely to receive interview callbacks than those who were presumed white by their names, providing badly needed context to the high unemployment facing Black college graduates.

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