The Dangerous Delusion of the Big, Scary Black Man

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New research shows black men are seen as larger, stronger, and more threatening than similarly built whites.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Beth Tate/Unsplash)

When a police officer shoots an unarmed black man, the justifications are usually quite similar: The guy was so large, seemed so strong, appeared so threatening.

Afterwards, when it is revealed that the victim is a young boy, or a man who is slight of stature, such statements seem transparently false. But newly published research suggests that, tragically, they may be an accurate account of the police officer’s perceptions.

In a series of seven studies, it provides the best evidence to date that Americans see black men as larger and stronger than whites of the same size and build. It further finds this misperception contributes to the belief that such men pose a threat, which in turn stimulates support for police use of force against them.

“Americans demonstrated a systematic bias in their perceptions of the physical formidability imposed by black men,” concludes a research team led by psychologist John Paul Wilson of Montclair State University. Their findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For most of the studies, Wilson and his colleagues used a set of photographs featuring 90 male faces — 45 whites and 45 blacks. They portrayed high school football players who were being recruited by college athletic programs. As such, their height and weight was publicly available.

In one study, 30 non-black Americans recruited online looked at the photos and estimated each young man’s height and weight. They judged the black athletes as both taller and heavier than white ones.

In another, 58 non-black Americans rated the black players are stronger than the white ones. In still another, 168 non-black Americans “judged the black targets as more capable of harm than the white targets.”

Another study featured 60 white and 60 black Americans, and found perceptions varied by race. “Although black and white perceptions perceived black targets as more physically muscular than white targets, the difference was significantly smaller for black participants,” the researchers write.

However, while white participants judged black men as “more capable of harm,” blacks “did not show this same pattern.” In other words, blacks had the same misperception of black men being strong, but they did not see this as a threat.

In another study, 77 non-black Americans were presented with those same faces and judged, for each, “the extent to which it would have been appropriate to use force to subdue him” if he was behaving aggressively.

“Participants rated the use of force against black men as more justified than the use of force among black men,” the researchers report. “People judged black men as larger and more harmful than white men, thus rendering them more suitable recipients of physical force.”

The final two studies found this same bias for people who “looked prototypically black, regardless of their race,” and even for those who had stereotypically black-sounding names. That latter finding confirms the results of a 2015 study that found simply having a name associated with blacks makes people imagine a larger, more dangerous person.

Indeed, this research is the latest in a long line of studies that indicate biased perceptions of blacks. A 2009 study found black male faces are more likely to be seen as threatening, while a 2014 study found black boys are viewed as older and less innocent than whites of the same age. And in a University of Iowa study published last year, participants were more likely to misidentify a toy as a weapon after seeing a black face than a white face — even when the faces were of young children.

This body of research suggests the need for better training of police officers to allow them to recognize their own biases. The process won’t be easy, as ingrained prejudices tend to come to the surface in tense situations requiring split-second decisions. And as this latest study reiterates, racial prejudice remains depressingly pervasive.

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