Many details remain unclear regarding the recent arrest of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates at his Cambridge, Mass., home. But this much is certain: Police sped to the residence after someone reported a break-in in progress. A black man attempting to push open the stuck front door of his own house was assumed to be a burglar.
To many columnists and commentators, the incident strongly suggests that racism — and specifically a tendency to stereotype black males — is alive and well in Obama-era America. Their fears are backed up by a just-published study, which suggests white Americans have difficulty discriminating between angry and non-angry faces of black men.
A research team led by psychologist Jenessa Shapiro of the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a preliminary study and three experiments to determine whether whites are more likely to perceive facial expressions as threatening if the face in question belongs to an African-American male. Their disturbing results are detailed in their paper "Following in the Wake of Anger," which was published online Tuesday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In the key experiment, 36 white American college students viewed an online slide show in which pairs of faces appeared on a screen in succession. All were of men between 18 and 35 years of age. The first face had either an angry or a neutral expression; the second had a neutral expression. Participants were asked to rate each in terms of how threatening the person came across, on a scale of one to nine.
When an angry white male face was paired with a white male face wearing a neutral expression, the second, neutral face was judged as less-threatening. However, this entirely logical result did not hold when the two faces in question were black.
"Instead, white participants failed to reduce their judgments of threat when a (neutral) black male face followed an angry black male face," the researchers report. "Indeed, after viewing an initial same-race angry face, black males were seen as more threatening than white males, even though the faces were pre-tested to be equivalently neutral."
The researchers attribute their findings to "the association of black males with physical safety threats. We note, however, that limitations in our design preclude us from fully disentangling whether these findings are driven by specific beliefs about black male dangerousness vs. a more general bias to favor the ingroup over the outgroup."
Either way, the study suggests that for whites, the stereotype of the threatening black male is easy to activate. Once it's lodged in the mind, it is then unconsciously projected onto others of his race and gender — even distinguished Harvard professors.
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