More than a decade ago, a major study found that people with stereotypically black names were 50 percent less likely to get callbacks from prospective employers.
Have things changed? Not according to a new UCLA study, which finds that a stereotypically black name conjures up a mental image of a person who is bigger, more violent and of a lower social status than someone with a typically "white" name.
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” said lead author Colin Holbrook, a research scientist in the UCLA anthropology department. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”
Jamal vs. Connor
During one version of the study, the mostly white participants, aged 18 to mid-70s, from all over the United States and self-identifying as slightly left of center politically, read one of two nearly identical vignettes.
One featured a man named Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell, and the other featured Connor, Wyatt or Garrett.
In that version, participants read a vignette with one of the two types of names. A control group read a,“neutral” vignette. The other groups read the same vignette with one of two additions: a “successful” scenario in which the character was a college graduate and successful business owner, or a “threatening” scenario in which the character had been convicted of aggravated assault.
In all versions of the study, participants were asked their intuitive impression of the character’s height, build, status, aggressiveness and other factors.
“In the ‘successful’ scenario, the white and black characters are similarly perceived,” Holbrook said. “And when the character is convicted of assault, they again have similar outcomes, no matter their name. But people imagine the neutral black character as similar in size to the white criminal character, and we know that this shift in size is a proxy for how violent and aggressive they implicitly perceive the person to be. It’s quite disturbing.”
Participants rated each character on height, muscularity and size, and the composite score for all three characteristics was statistically equivalent for the “black neutral” character and the “white criminal” character.
Not only did participants envision the characters with black-sounding names as larger, even though the actual average height of black and white men in the United States is the same, but the researchers also found that size and status were linked in opposite ways depending on the assumed race of the characters.
The larger the participants imagined the characters with “black”-sounding names, the lower they envisioned their financial success, social influence and respect in their community. Conversely, the larger they pictured those with “white”-sounding names, the greater they envisioned their status, said co-author and UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler, director of the,UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture.
“In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status,” Fessler said. “However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men. For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big and big equals dangerous, period.”
Participants would be dismayed
“I think our study participants, who were overall on the liberal end of the spectrum, would be dismayed to know this about themselves,” Holbrook said. “This study shows that, even among people who understand that racism is still very real, it’s important for them to acknowledge the possibility that they have not only prejudicial but really inaccurate stereotypes in their heads.”
The study was published,in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.