New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has found that anti-Black bias is rooted in perceived threat.
Five Separate Studies
The research was carried out across five studies and the results suggested that anti-Black bias is, in part, caused by White Americans perceiving Black men as a threat. Over the past few years, the horrific consequences of anti-Black bias have been highlighted in the media more than ever, particularly where police are concerned.
Anti-Black Bias Is Deadly
Study author David S. March said: “As recent events have highlighted, the consequences of anti-Black bias can be deadly. The typical approach to prejudice as valenced evaluations implies that negative evaluations of Black Americans is the problem and redressing the unfavorable attitude is the solution. But I noticed that approach does not easily track field and laboratory data.”
Dislike vs. Threat
March continued: “I suggested that many instances of anti-Black bias, like shooter bias, may be more strongly driven by a danger rather than negative association. That is, instead of dislike, the underlying problem might be threat.”
A Survival Threat
March further explained: “So, I wanted to test if White Americans implicitly process Black individuals as a survival threat and/or in terms of negativity. Showing a unique or stronger Black-threat association would grant credence to the idea that threat, and not dislike, drive much anti-Black bias.”
The First Two Studies
Two hundred and thirteen White undergraduate students took part in the first two of the five studies. They were asked to label different target images as “good” or “bad” after being influenced by the presence of faces of either Black or White males.
The Aim of the Studies
The aim of the aforementioned studies was to differentiate between associations of threat and negativity within the framework of race. When primed with Black faces, the participants were faster to decide a threatening target was “bad” compared to when they were primed with White faces.
The Third and Fourth Studies
Four hundred and forty-five White undergraduate students took part in the third and fourth studies. These participants were asked to categorize emotive Black, White, and Asian male faces as either “dangerous,” “negative,” or “positive.” Mouse-tracking technology revealed that the participants labeled Black faces as “dangerous” sooner, especially when the faces were angry.
The Fifth Study
Two hundred and six White undergraduate students took part in the final study, where they were asked, when primed with typically Black or White names, to label target words as “dangerous” or “negative.” The results aligned with the first four studies. When primed by Black names, participants labeled words as “dangerous” faster.
Quick To Feel Threatened
The studies suggested that White Americans are very quick to associate Black men, but not Asian men, with threat. Moreover, they suggested that the association with threat was far stronger than the association with mere negativity.
A Clear Pattern
Speaking to PsyPost, March said: “So what we have is a clear pattern showing that White Americans automatically associate Black men with threat. In no study did I find an automatic association linking Black men to negativity. So, when parsing out threat from negativity and isolating the effects of negativity, there did not appear to be an automatic Black-negative link.”
Internalizing Anti-Black Bias
March went on to discuss internalized anti-Black bias: “So, the idea that prejudice is driven by dislike or disdain may be incorrect. Instead, the Black-threat association was consistent. Indeed, I even found that same effect in a follow-up series of studies where data was collected from Black participants, implying that the stereotype is so pervasive in the U.S. culture that it is even internalized by the ingroup.”
A “Black-Dangerous” Stereotype
Continuing, March suggested that this “Black-threat” bias could be a significant factor in police brutality: “Given that it appears a Black-threat association is quite prevalent, prejudices driven by threat are going to have unique and powerful impacts on behavior. This work implies that Black Americans may disproportionately suffer from the pervasiveness of a socially reinforced Black-dangerous stereotype. Consider police use-of-force, which may be heightened in the presence of someone perceived as more dangerous than someone perceived as less dangerous.”
Limitations of the Research
While March’s findings are interesting, it’s important to remember that the studies had limitations. The participants were White undergraduates, for example, which means they may not accurately represent White Americans as a whole. Regardless, the findings back up the age-old theory that bigotry is rooted in unnecessary fear.
The Internet’s Response
News of the findings was shared across the internet and people were quick to give their views in comment sections. One person wrote: “The irony of this. [White people] forced drugs and poverty on this community after releasing them from slavery. They continue to kill and imprison these people and yet they are scared of them? The oppressor is scared of their long-time victim retaliating is more accurate.”
Victims of Institutional Racism
Echoing the aforementioned commenter, another individual said: “So the people who were kidnapped, beaten, raped, enslaved, victims of institutional racism, told they were partially human in order to justify what was being done to them, are the threat? Wow. Just wow!”
A Reaction to Fear
Quite a few people weren’t surprised by the findings. One such person wrote: “Hostility toward outsiders is often a reaction to fear. It typically involves the belief that there is a conflict between an individual’s ingroup and an outgroup.”
The Media and Racism
Plenty of commenters blamed the perceived threat on the way the media depicts Black communities. “Oh you mean the ‘perceived threat’ the media worked for decades to instill in everyone?” one individual said.
It Was Always About Fear
Others expressed disappointment: “White people continue to disappoint me… but I’m not surprised. We always knew it was about fear. What a different world we’d live in if people learned a bit about social economics.”
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