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