Perceived Size of Black Men Sheds Light on Racism

Thursday, March 16, 2017 Written by 
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It’s no secret that black men are skilled athletes.  While some may call it a stereotype, it is no less true.  Significant achievements of black men in sports conform to the notion that they are naturally bigger, tougher and stronger.  


But the same thing that may give black men respect on the football field is met with fear on the street.  Unfortunately, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the world views black men as physically taller, heavier and stronger (and therefore more threatening) than white men even when the facts prove otherwise.


These exaggerated perceptions lead to the conclusion that black men are generally more menacing and, therefore, more potentially harmful than other men.


Lead author John Paul Wilson, a social psychologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey, gave examples from the study, which compared black men to white men.  


In one experiment, based on headshots of college football players, participants rated black players as taller and heavier than the white ones, even though the opposite was true.  In another study where a black man and white man were of equal height and weight, respondents predicted the black man would be more harmful if they got into a fight.


By far, the most damaging data came from an experiment where participants were asked to judge whether use of force by police would be more appropriate against a black man if he acted aggressively, but was unarmed.  As suspected, force was deemed more appropriate against the black man.


This finding feeds into the mindset which justifies police shootings of unarmed black men, Wilson said.  And it provides more insight into how racist views are formed.  Racial bias against black people as physically superhuman and animalistic sets up the narrative that white people are physically inferior, therefore victims who must be protected.  


The race-based size and threat bias is deeply rooted in the psyche of most White Americans—even those who do not consider themselves to have racist views, Wilson said.


Wilson wants to bring his research to the public and form partnerships to educate and train police, which is an idea I fully support. Until a person is aware of false perceptions toward others, negative attitudes and behaviors cannot be changed.


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