Written by Sureshi M. Jayawardene
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this month reveals a correlation between the physical size of Black men and the disproportionate police targeting of unarmed Black men. Wilson, Hugenberg, and Rule’s (2017) study showed that people generally have a racially biased perception that Black males are bigger (i.e., taller, heavier, and more muscular) and more physically threatening (i.e., stronger and more capable of causing harm) compared to similarly sized young White men. Such perceptions are central to conversations about police violence in the Black community. We know that racism and White supremacy are the culprits for the violence of policing, but how can we better explain the systematic and sustained patterns of police officers’ force decisions? What real, hard evidence can we bring forward to overhaul the current system of policing so that our loved ones are not moving targets? One dimension of police altercations in the Black community that always functions to incriminate the dead—and often unarmed—Black youth and justify the police officer’s decision to use force (not just one time but multiple times) is the victim’s physical size and formidability. Wilson et al (2017) hypothesized that the stereotypes that Black men are “physically threatening,” “less innocent,” and “physically superhuman” likely creates conditions that prompt perceivers to demonstrate racially biased perceptions of Black men’s physical size and overall formidability.
Biased Formidability Judgment
In this study, Wilson et al (2017) conducted a series of experiments with over 950 online participants across the United States who were shown a number of color photographs of White and Black male faces who were of equal height and weight. Study participants were then asked to estimate the weight, strength, height, and overall muscularity of the individuals in the images. The researchers found that the estimations were “consistently biased” evidenced by claims that judged Black men to be larger, stronger, and more muscular than their White counterparts, although they were the same size and build. Study participants also expressed that Black men had a greater capacity to cause harm in a hypothetical altercation. Furthermore, and rather distressingly, participants also believed that law enforcement would be more justified in using force to subdue Black men even in situations where they were unarmed.
In one experiment, participants were shown identically sized bodies which were either labelled Black or White. Participants were more likely to describe the Black bodies as heavier and taller. In another experiment, this size bias was especially evident for men whose facial features were more stereotypically “Black,” i.e., Black men with darker skin and facial characteristics that were more “African.” These images elicited more biased size perceptions despite these men being the same size as their lighter skinned counterparts with less stereotypical facial features.
Noteworthy in these findings is that even study participants who identified as Black displayed this racial bias. However, key to this finding is that while Black participants judged young Black men to be more muscular than their White counterparts, they did not assess them to be more inclined to cause harm or to be more deserving of force.
Research for Social Change
Black communities nationwide are intimately familiar with the disproportionate and gratuitous police violence Black men, women and transpersons are routinely subjected to. Across geographies and generations, Black people know this all too well. Many experience repeated trauma with word of each police killing. Often, this reality of Black death is so close to home that we do not need research to support it. However, this new study demonstrates one dimension of the possible cause between disproportionate police targeting and racial bias within law enforcement as a system. In other words, Wilson et al (2017) provide us evidence that may explain one contributing factor of police officers’ decisions to shoot an unarmed Black man.
Limitations and What’s Needed Next
Although this study illustrates the relationship between misperceptions of Black men’s size, threat, and the use of force, the researchers did not simulate real-world threat scenarios such as those Black youth and police officers find themselves in. Wilson et al (2017) note that further research into whether and how this bias operates in potentially lethal situation as well as other real-world police interactions is necessary. Moreover, the study participants were also not exclusively representatives of law enforcement agencies, which means that more research needs to be done to empirically establish the relationship between racially biased perceptions about Black males’ size, their proclivities for causing harm, and the use of force in this specific context so that real, effective, and sustainable solutions can be formulated.
Wilson, J.P., Hugenberg, K., and Rule, N. (2017). Racial bias in judgments of physical size and formidability: From size to threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000092
Written by Serie McDougal
In a country that has done little to gain the faith of Black males, what role does trust play in the formation of Black manhood in the American context? T. Elon Dancy (2012) interviewed 24 African American males at 12 different universities about the intersections of manhood and the college experience. One of the things that Dancy (2012) identified is the different ways that his respondents defined manhood in the context of their college experience. Dancy (2012) discovered three elements of manhood based on his interviews: 1) self-expectation; 2) relationships and responsibilities, and 3) worldviews and life philosophies.
Self-expectation represents the emphasis that the young men placed on manhood as being self-determining, responsible, being a real or authentic version of one’s self, being leaders, and being able to balance sensitivity and strength. Relationships and responsibilities represent the young men’s association of manhood with being provider and protectors of women and children and being examples for their younger siblings and relatives. Worldviews and philosophies refer to the men’s association of manhood with being spiritual, having a certain level of skepticism or mistrust of Whites, embracing African American and African culture, and serving and supporting the Black community. The third theme, worldviews and philosophies, is evidence that some college-age Black males defined manhood in a way that includes having a distrust for Whites. This phenomenon is called “cultural mistrust” in the mental health arena. Given the degree to which African Americans are stereotyped and subjected to institutional racism, Ridley (1989) regards this a healthy mistrust. This interpretation of mistrust as healthy allows Blacks to protect themselves from racist experiences that may be harmful to their self-esteem. More recent research suggests that trust may be related to the educational phenomenon called disidentification.
A great deal of academic research on African American youth examines a phenomenon called academic disidentification. Simply put, academic disidentification occurs when a student’s self-perception is not impacted by their academic performance as it does for most others. For individuals who are academically disidentified, poor academic performance will not impact their self-esteem. Black students have been found to be more likely to academically disidentify compared to other groups. Although academic disidentification develops over time, yet for Black males who disidentify do so more consistently over time compared to Black females. In a new study, McClain & Cokley (2016) explore the reasons why this happens.
The evaluation of teachers is a major component of students’ academic achievement. A component of the teacher-student relationship is teacher trust or students’ trust of their teachers and beliefs that they are benevolent, honest, reliable, open, and competent. McClain and Cokley (2006) recently investigated the roles that teacher trust and gender play in disidentification among 319 college students, who self-identified as Black. They used a trust scale to measure students’ differing levels of trust in their teachers, and an academic self-concept scale to measure higher and lower levels of academic self-concept. The results illustrate that Black males reported significantly lower levels of trust and GPAs compared to Black females. Older males reported higher levels of academic self-concept, while this was not true for females. While older males had lower levels of trust, older females had higher levels of trust. Among Black male and female students, those with high academic self-concept were likely to have higher levels of teacher trust. Moreover, males and females with higher GPAs were likely to have higher levels of trust.
This means that while males developed higher academic self-concepts over time, they also developed lower levels of trust in their teachers. McClain & Cokley (2016) explain that older Black males may be discounting feedback from their teachers. They suggest a lack of teacher trust may explain why there is a weak relationship between Black males’ academic self-concepts and their academic performance. It is also possible that this is because when they distrust their teachers, they attribute their academic outcomes to their teacher’s bias. Besides, their teacher perceptions are out of their hands, which may give them the feeling that their academic fate is also out of their hands (McClain & Cokley, 2016).
Addressing Disidentification and Teacher Trust
To ameliorate the problem of academic disidentification and address issues of teacher trust among Black college students, the authors of this study suggest that teachers need to interrogate their own perceptions of Black males, challenge their racial attitudes, and seek ways to build trust with Black males. However, another important solution lies in an earnest effort at recruiting Black faculty, especially Black male faculty. Compared to their non-Black professors, Black students have found Black professors to be less likely to treat them stereotypically, more likely to have positive beliefs about their academic ability, understand them, be role models for them, and hold them to high standards (Guiffrida, 2005; Tuitt, 2012).
Dancy, T.E. (2012). The brotherhood code: Manhood and masculinity among African American males in college. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.
Guiffrida, D. (2005). Othermothering as a framework for understanding African American students' definitions of a student-centered faculty. Journal of Higher Education, 76(6), 701-723.
Mcclain, S., & Cokley, K. (2016). Academic disidentification in black college students: The role of teacher trust and gender. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.
Ridley, C. R. (1989). Racism in counseling as an adversive behavioral process. In P. B.
Pedersen, J. G. Draguns, W. J. Lonner, & J.E. Trimble (Eds.), Counseling across cultures
(3rd ed., pp. 55–77). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Tuitt, F. (2012). Black like me. Journal of Black Studies, 43(2), 186-206.