The continued dehumanization of blacks

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The continued dehumanization of blacks

by Alison Perlberg on Sunday, July 31, 2011 - 2:20am

 Are Blacks fully human? Are they less “evolved” than Whites? Are they worthy of the same moral regard?

Popular answers to these questions are not as straightforward as one would predict in a country with a mixed-race president. Jennifer Eberhardt, Stanford Associate Professor of Psychology, discussed national responses to these questions and more during a talk entitled, “The Dehumanization of Blacks in the Modern Era.” While Blacks’ status as humans, their relative intelligence, and their merit for moral treatment have been debated in earlier periods of history, these questions seem antiquated in what many deem a “post-racial” society. With President Obama in the White House, racial discrimination can seem like a relic of America’s sordid past.

However, Eberhardt’s research confirms that racial bias continues to thrive today. In her talk, given to fellow Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows, Eberhardt provided empirical evidence from a number of studies demonstrating the presence and consequences of our modern ideas about race. She described visual and audio perception studies that reveal implicit associations between Blacks and apes. These associations can lead to justifications of violence toward Blacks and decreases in concern about racial inequalities.

First Eberhardt explained a psychological concept known as “inattentional blindness.” To operate efficiently among an overabundance of sensory information, our minds tune out certain information deemed less important and focus only on what is important. “Objects become visible or invisible to us based on our goals, based on our expectations, and based on what we know to be true about the world,” Eberhardt informed. Therefore, our ideas about social categories, such as race, can affect our perceptions of the world around us.

Along these lines, Eberhardt described a laboratory experiment testing the effect of racial imagery on visual perception of animals. Participants were shown brief flashes of young men’s faces; these flashes occurred too quickly to be consciously detected by the participants. The faces were either Black or White, and a control group viewed simple flashes of light. Exposing people to images beneath their conscious awareness is called “subliminal priming,” and this technique is commonly used in psychology. After viewing these faces, participants were given series of blurry images of animals such as apes, alligators, elephants, etc. Each image was slowly brought into focus. As soon as the participant recognized the image, he or she would press a button.

Eberhardt found a startling result: “Participants who are exposed to the Black faces beforehand need a lot less information to detect these ape images. Exposure to the Black faces facilitates their ability to recognize these ape images.” However, the opposite effect occurred for participants who viewed White faces: “It’s actually inhibiting their ability to detect these very same ape images.” The race of the participant made no difference; both Black and White participants responded similarly.

Eberhardt described a number of other studies with similar findings. Instead of faces, participants saw a list of stereotypically White or Black names. Then they viewed a video with a gorilla in it. Only 45% of the participants exposed to the White names noticed the gorilla. But 70% of the participants who saw the Black names noticed the gorilla. “This idea of Blacks as apes pulls the gorilla out of darkness,” Eberhardt said.

Given the findings of these studies—people exhibit a clear association between Blacks and apes—what are the social and political consequences? Eberhardt described an experiment based on the Rodney King case. Participants viewed a video of police officers beating a Black suspect. Participants who saw words associated with apes before watching the video believed the officers’ actions were more justified, compared to participants who did not see the animal imagery. In a separate study, Eberhardt found that people are more likely to consider animal language (such as “barbaric,” “animalistic,” etc.) appropriate and necessary in court cases of Black defendants compared to White defendants. News articles describing Black defendants are more likely to use animal language than articles about White defendants. In addition, news articles of Blacks who received a death sentence contain more animal language than the articles of those with life sentences. “So not only are Blacks associated with apes, but this association is linked to justifications of violence and death,” Eberhardt concluded. “It’s almost as though the rules for what moral treatment is get shifted for Black suspects and defendants.”

While our country has achieved enormous progress in combating particular racial inequalities, we still have a long way to go. Implicit biases such as those studied by Eberhardt can be especially insidious in undermining equal treatment. The association of Blacks with apes can lower the bar for violence and re-inscribe lasting inequalities into the fabric of American culture.