If you're a man, there are many advantages to being tall. Research has found that tall men are more attractive to women, are perceived as natural leaders, and tend to earn more money than their height-challenged counterparts.
But new research adds a considerable caveat to that truism: It seems this positive effect applies only to whites.
"Height means something different for black men," write psychologists Neil Hester and Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. "Height amplifies already problematic perceptions of threat, which can lead to harassment and even injury. For black men, being tall may be less of a boon, and more of a burden."
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe three studies that back up this contention. The first looked at more than one million people who were "stopped and frisked" by the New York Police Department before the program was outlawed by a 2013 judicial ruling.
The researchers restricted their data to non-Hispanic black and white males, and controlled for several factors that could account for higher odds of being stopped by police, including age, weight, and local crime rates (real and perceived).
They found that "tall black men are especially likely to receive unjustified attention from police."
"At 5'4", police stopped 4.5 black men for every white man," they report. "At 5'10", police stopped 5.3 black men for every white man. At 6'4", police stopped 6.2 black men for every white man."
The second study featured 318 participants who looked at photographs of 16 young men—eight white and eight black—from two perspectives: Above the target (which makes one look short) and below (which makes one look tall). They rated each photograph using adjectives related to both threat and competence.
The appearance of being taller made white men "seem more competent, and thus less threatening," the researchers report. But for black men, "being taller made targets more threatening, and thus less competent."
These findings—replicated in a final study—were exacerbated among participants who generally see black men as menacing. They strongly suggest that, for many, height activates or heightens the pervasive stereotype that black men are "physically threatening and imposing."
Further analysis showed that, when threat is removed from the equation, tall black men, like tall white men, project an aura of competence. So a black male business executive may be positively perceived at a board meeting—and then negatively stereotyped when he takes off his suit and goes for a run.
Not all tall tales have happy endings.