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.


  1. Joe

    Not at all surprising. The depth of the white racist frame in this society cannot be exaggerated. The ape imagery actually started with white travellers to Africa in the 1500s and 1600s, and was early articulated by leading Enlightenment thinkers like Sir William Petty and Thomas Jefferson.

    Yet most whites deny they still think out of this deep white racist frame.

  2. Jessie Author

    Right, I agree ~ and I think that it will be interesting to watch how this research is received in the context of the current surge of optimism surrounding Obama’s candidacy. There’s a deep strain of denial about the level of racism that exists. Hey, I know… someone should start a blog about racism…. oh, wait. 😉


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