Not Yet Human: New Research on Implicit Racism

In a study conducted over six years at Stanford, UC-Berkeley and Penn State, and just recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that many whites do not regard African Americans as “fully human.” (Hat tip to LibraryBob for telling me about this article.) The findings reveal that whites subconsciously associate blacks with apes and are more likely to condone violence against black criminal suspects as a result of their broader inability to accept blacks as “fully human.” The researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments in which participants, mostly white male undergraduates, were then shown black or white male faces on a screen for a fraction of a second before being asked to identify blurry ape drawings. According to the abstract:

“…the authors reveal how this association influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgments in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black-ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects.The results showed that the subjects identified the drawings much faster after they were primed with black faces rather than with white faces.”

And, in what I can only call a genius research design, they combine the lab studies of implicit bias with archival content-analysis research of the language used in newspaper accounts from criminal cases:

“In an archival study of actual criminal cases, the authors show that news articles written about Blacks who are convicted of capital crimes are more likely to contain ape-relevant language than news articles written about White convicts. Moreover, those who are implicitly portrayed as more apelike in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not.”

This is really groundbreaking research for the way it connects the sometimes apolitical and overly psychological implicit bias research to the broader social context of white racism. In an interview, the lead researcher, Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford, says:

“This was actually some of the most depressing work I have done. This shook me up. You have suspicions when you do the work — intuitions — you have a hunch. But it was hard to prepare for how strong [the black-ape association] was — how we were able to pick it up every time. African Americans are still dehumanized; we’re still associated with apes in this country.”

The researchers also showed study participants words like “ape” or “cat” (as a control) and then a video clip of a television show like “COPS” in which police are beating a man of unknown racial identity. Then, the researchers showed the participants a photo of either a black or white man, described him as a “loving family man” yet with a criminal history. They then asked participants to rate how justified they thought the beating was. Those who believed the suspect was black were more likely to say the beating was justified when they were primed with words like “ape.” The conclusion researchers come to is that the “Black-ape” association has a significant impact on (white) people’s judgments of Blacks as criminal suspects and serves to endorse violence against Blacks.

Eberhardt goes on in the interview to set out the competing narratives about racism and bias in America:

“One is about the disappearance of bias — that it’s no longer with us. But the other is about the transformation of bias. It’s not the egregious bias anymore, but it’s modern bias, subtle bias. We want to argue, with this work, that there is one old race battle that we’re still fighting. That is the battle for blacks to be recognized as fully human.”

Well said, Prof. Eberhardt ~ and brava on some brilliant research.

Lessing’s Prediction of Racist Violence

British Nobel-Prize novelist, Doris Lessing, said that she thinks Senator Barack Obama might be assassinated if elected:

“He would probably not last long, a black man in the position as president. They would kill him.”

She did not indicate who she thought such assassins might be. The public and political reaction has mostly rejected her comments and their implications as “wild” and “fearmongering.”

Lessing probably said what many observers of the revolutionary change of a black man running for U.S. president secretly fear might happen.

Lessing has long been an outspoken feminist and opponent of antiblack racism. She became famous as a fierce critic of European colonialism in Africa, and was attacked for her feminism in her 1960s writings. She was banned as a “prohibited alien” for a long period from South Africa by its apartheid regime.

Her fear that Obama might be targeted is likely conditioned on her awareness of how much violence has targeted U.S. presidents and other U.S. officials in her lifetime.

Her statement seems to many extreme and, as some put it, “fearmongering,” but the U.S. has a four-centuries tradition of whites attacking black Americans. Life under legal segregation for millions of still living African Americans was one of constant white violence (unprosecuted white murderers and other perpetrators are still living too). At least 6,000 lynchings targeting African Americans took place from the 1880s to the present. A large proportion of hate crimes, many violent, each year now target African Americans.

Recall that the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building was by antigovernment activists who were white supremacists. Months later other bomb plots were uncovered, one targeting federal buildings in Spokane and Austin. Today, numerous antigovernment militia and supremacist groups are made up of white men (and some women) very angry about current societal conditions. In 1998, a black man, James Byrd, Jr., was walking down a Jasper, Texas, road a few miles from where I am now writing. Three white men, with white-supremacist tattoos, beat him savagely and dragged him along a road dismembering him. One reportedly said to the others, “We’re starting The Turner Diaries early,” referring to violence by white supremacists in that racist novel still popular with supremacists. The Jasper lynching triggered copycat crimes in other cities. (See my book Racist America for details.)

In recent years members of white supremacy groups have reportedly stockpiled explosives and prepared bombing ventures.  In 2006, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center there were at least 844 active Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead, and other white supremacist groups. An estimated two hundred thousand whites are active or passive supporters of such groups.  And, there are hundreds of U.S.-based Internet sites disseminating extreme, with tens of thousands of active members, often violent racist diatribes.

It is time to recognize that what Lessing said could really happen at the hands of white supremacists in the United States and to deal with this chilling possibility and its likely white supremacist perpetrators openly and critically in the media and other public discussions, as well as by public safety actions. In my view, we should also provide stepped-up, super-protections for the courageous Senator Obama and his family, especially if he is the Democratic nominee.

As a white researcher who gets death threats now and then just for doing research on racism in the United States, I can personally attest that Lessing’s fears are neither “wild” nor unrealistic.