In a widely heralded speech, presidential candidate Barack Obama asked Americans to begin a more honest discussion about race, anger and prejudice. Such a conversation is unlikely to get far, however, if someone's not even aware of their bigoted assumptions. And a just-published series of six studies suggests one racial stereotypes — that blacks are somehow apelike — is lodged in the minds of white Americans, just below the level of consciousness.
"When I first analyzed the data, I spent two days under the covers," said lead author Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. "I was sick and depressed. When I left my apartment, I felt everyone looking at me would see a monkey.
"But at this point, I'm able to feel some optimism about it. Once I tell my students about this, they are able to see it and put it in perspective. Knowing about it, and being able to talk about it, positions us to better combat it."
The project was conceived five years ago when Goff was a graduate student at Stanford University, studying under associate professor of psychology Jennifer Eberhardt (who, like Goff, is African-American). "She had a child in day care at the time we started talking about this," Goff recalled. "One day, she heard a white woman -- a teacher or a parent -- refer to her child as a monkey."
As they discussed the remark, which was greeted by a stunned silence, Eberhardt and Goff saw the seeds of a study. "We had a sense that this representation was out there and it had material consequences, but (also) that people lacked the language to discuss it, and maybe even the awareness," Goff said. "Little did we know how little awareness they had."
Realizing they were treading on sensitive territory, Eberhardt and Goff (who were eventually joined by Melissa J. Williams of UC Berkeley and Matthew Christian Jackson of Penn State) proceeded slowly and cautiously. "We wanted to be very careful," he recalled. "We didn't want to publish anything that was spurious. We took our time, doing a number of studies to make sure we had captioned the phenomenon."
The first study, which was conducted at Stanford, was made up of 121 male undergraduates - 60 whites and 61 of other races. (All the participants in these studies were males. Goff explained that he wanted to measure stereotypes of black men, since they seem to be stronger than those for black women, and he wanted the participants in the study to be of the same gender.)
The participants were "primed" with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.
The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.
The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.
"The effects were quite large -- distressingly large," Goff said. "There was a decent amount of variance, but there weren't a whole lot of folks that didn't demonstrate the effect.
"The difference between when the black face was primed and when the white face was primed was about six frames, which was about three full seconds. In cognitive terms, where you're staring at a screen you're just a few inches from and trying to tell what an object is, three seconds is a profound difference!"
In follow-up tests, Goff and his colleagues tried to pinpoint the source of the association. Perhaps, they theorized, Americans associate blacks not with apes per se; perhaps the association was of blacks with Africa, and Africa with apes. But a study that attempted to establish a link between African men and the big cats that reside on that continent failed to do so. Instead, it confirmed that the association is with apes.
Study five, conducted at Penn State University, took a different approach. A group of white male students were primed with words associated with either apes or big cats. They then watched a tape of a policeman beating a man, a la Rodney King. Half were told the man (whose image was unclear on the film) was white; the other half were told he was black.
The students who were primed with cat words considered the beating unjustified. So did those who were primed with ape words but were told the victim was white. But those who were primed with the ape words and told the victim was black were far more ambivalent in their reaction. "The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified," Goff said.
Goff considers the sixth and final study the most distressing of all. "We looked at 183 cases over a 20-year span where a defendant was found guilty of a crime and was eligible for the death penalty," he said. "We looked at any article from the Philadelphia Inquirer that mentioned the incident, up until the sentencing. We coded them for words like ‘ape,' ‘beast,' ‘brute' or ‘jungle' -- ape-specific words.
"It turned out African Americans had significantly more ape-related images ascribed to them than did whites. And among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death."
Goff is not claiming a causal relationship between the stories and the death sentences; juries, he noted, are routinely ordered not to read press accounts of their cases. Rather, he concluded, "the representation of African Americans as apelike is so present in the cultural ether that both the press and the juries were drawn toward it."
With, in some cases, lethal results.
The notion of blacks as apelike "began with the first European contact with Africans," Goff said. "There were illustrations of apes descending from the trees and having intercourse with African females. It was perhaps the most popular pictorial representation of people of African descent in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries."
In the influential and now infamous 1854 book Types of Mankind, Josiah C. Nott and George Robins Gliddon rank Negroes between Greeks and chimpanzees on the evolutionary ladder.
"I don't think it's intentional, but when people learn about human evolution, they walk away with a notion that people of African descent are closer to apes than people of European descent," Eberhardt told the Stanford University press office. "When people think of a civilized person, a white man comes to mind."
The imagery cost caustic sportscaster Howard Cosell his Monday Night Football job when in 1984 he said, "look at that little monkey run" in referring to an African-American wide receiver. (After he was fired, Cosell produced tape showing him calling a white player a monkey.) It was a different story a dozen years later, when another sportscaster, Billy Packer, called then-Georgetown basketball phenom Allen Iverson a "tough monkey." Neither Iverson, an African American, nor his coach, also African American, made a fuss and Packer kept his job.
At the highest levels of soccer, throughout Spain, France and Eastern Europe, African stars have long been subjected to racist taunts -- often in the form of monkey grunts, and sometimes from their own fans. Earlier this year, the black British race car driver Lewis Hamilton endured torrents of racist abuse -- including being jeered by fans in black face and ape wigs -- at a Formula One event in Barcelona.
It's not just sports.
Images of blacks as apelike creatures can still be found in many European and Latin American countries. The still-popular "Tintin" series of comic books by the Belgian writer and illustrator Herge include a 1931 installment that takes place in the Congo and depicts the natives as monkey-like.
Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious. (For one of the studies, the participants were specifically asked whether they were aware of the stereotype of blacks as apelike. Only 9 percent answered affirmatively.)
So how is this being transmitted from generation to generation? "It's a fascinating question," Goff said. "If you look at the depictions of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama in editorial cartoons, they are frequently simian-looking representations. It's reasonable that could go unremarked upon, and yet feed these associations."
Goff is continuing to study that question and probe further into sources of unconscious racism. "The other research I do is on stereotype threats -- the fear whites have of being seen as racist," he said. "So I study both sides of what Obama was speaking about. I am more than a little bit inspired by his words."
Inspired, but not particularly popular among his colleagues.
"We've gotten a lot of hate e-mails since this research was first published," Goff said. "People are very angry, including people in my own institution who don't believe we should be doing this research. I've heard from blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. They call it ‘incendiary research.' Some people accuse us of poor methodology, as is their wont when social scientists find something they don't like.
"But considering the power (of this linkage), it needs to be studied scientifically. I believe there are ways to fix this. I can't say exactly what they are, but it will be social scientists who find the language."
An illustration suggesting links between blacks and apes from the influential 1854 book "Types of Mankind," by Josiah Nott and George Robins Gliddon: http://americanabolitionist.liberalarts.iupui.edu/types_of_mankind.jpg