When it comes to black men, our perceptions skewed — in a troubling direction.
According to a new study from the American Psychological Association, people tend to perceive black men as larger and more dangerous than white men of the same size.
In a series of experiments, the researchers showed over 950 online black and nonblack U.S. participants a series of color photographs of the faces of white and black men who were of equal height and weight. Participants then had to guess the height, weight and muscularity of the pictured subjects.
Researchers found that the estimates were consistently biased. All participants saw black men as larger, stronger and more muscular than white men, even though they were the same. However, nonblack participants perceived black men to be more capable of causing harm in a fictional fight scenario, and, even more disquieting, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue the black men — even if they were unarmed.
A fair bit of colorism was at work with participants, as well. Men with darker skin and more "stereotypically black facial features" were most harshly misjudged to be bigger, stronger and more dangerous.
That black men cannot even be perceived as who they actually are is a factor, according to researchers, in America's police brutality epidemic.
Black men disproportionately fall victim to this epidemic. One analysis of 2014-early 2015 police killings showed that 41% of those killed were black, while a 2015 Washington Post investigation found that of the 60 unarmed people killed in the first 8 months of the year, 40% were black men, despite black men accounting for only 6% of the U.S. population. Between June 2015 and July 2016, the Baton Rouge police department killed only black men.
"Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot," lead author John Paul Wilson, of Montclair State University, said in a press release. "Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality."
A misperception of reality played a role in cases like the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. After Rice's death, many of the officials involved in prosecuting his case spoke about Tamir as if he were an adult.
Prosecutor Matthew Meyer described Rice as "5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, with a men's XL jacket and size-36 pants" and as easily passing for someone older, according to CBS News. And, according to Politico, Steve Loomis, president of Cleveland's Police Patrolman's Association, described Rice as "menacing."
"He's 5-feet-7, 191 pounds," Loomis said. "He wasn't that little kid you're seeing in pictures. He's a 12-year-old in an adult body."
Trayvon Martin was also the victim of biased size perception. After his death, a fake email circulated purporting to show "current" photos of 17-year-old Martin, but they were actually photos of 31-year-old rapper Game.
One explanation for the implicit bias that Wilson captured in this study — that we can't see black men as they really are — could be media bias. One 2011 study found that distorted media portrayals of black men led to a general antagonism toward black men, a lack of sympathy toward them and public support for dealing punitively with black men.