If the current election cycle hasn't convinced you that racism has yet to be eradicated, consider this: The mere image of a black man is enough to stimulate an automatic threat response in whites. Research has found faces of African-American males are more likely to be perceived as angry, and can trigger neural activity associated with rapid detection of danger.
While even pre-teens can stimulate this reaction (which helps explain the tragic shooting of a 12 year old holding a pellet gun in Cleveland two years ago), it presumably doesn't apply to very young black boys. It's hard to believe they are perceived as dangerous as they emerge from the womb.
So when do they start coming across as threatening? Newly published research provides a depressing answer: by the time they enter kindergarten.
Participants misidentified safe words as threatening more often after seeing a black face.
In a series of studies, a University of Iowa research team led by Andrew Todd finds images of the faces of five-year-old black boys are sufficient to trigger whites into heightened-threat mode. "Implicit biases commonly observed for black men appear to generalize even to young black boys," the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science.
The first of their experiments featured 63 college undergraduates, who "completed a categorization task in which two images flashed on the monitor in quick succession. Participants were instructed to ignore the first time, which was always a face; it merely signaled that the second image was about to appear. Their task was to quickly and accurately categorize the second image (the target object) as a gun or a toy, by pressing one of two response keys."
In fact, the faces—all of five-year-old boys with neutral facial expressions—were a key component of the experiment. Six of them featured black children, and six white. Researchers wanted to know whether the race of the child would affect the speed and accuracy of the white participants' responses.
It did. "Participants identified guns more quickly after black-child primes than after white-child primes," the researchers report, "whereas they identified toys more quickly after the white-child primes than after black-child primes."
Subsequent experiments found black five-year-old faces produced just as strong an effect as photographs of adult black males. This held true when white participants were labeling images as guns or tools, and when they were shown a list of words (including "criminal" and "peaceful") and asked to categorize each as "safe" or "threatening."
In that last experiment, participants misidentified safe words as threatening more often after seeing a black face, and misidentified threatening words as safe more often after seeing a white one—child or adult.
"These racial biases were driven entirely by differences in automatic processing," Todd and his colleagues write. In other words, no conscious thought was involved; whites simply saw a black male face and reacted in ways that indicated a heightened level of perceived threat.
Even when the face was that of a five-year-old.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.