University of Iowa research finds black children, as young as 5, face negative stereotypes

'Youth may be insufficient to disarm the threat associated with black men'

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A significant body of research exists showing pervasive stereotypes linking black men with violence and criminality, and a group of University of Iowa researchers recently wondered whether those stereotypes extend to black boys as well.

In short: they do.

This conclusion was supported by research conducted by the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences investigators and published Monday by the Association for Psychological Science and Science Daily.

“Our findings suggest that youth may be insufficient to disarm the threat associated with black men,” according to the study. “Implicit biases commonly observed for black men appear to generalize even to young black boys.”

The research looked specifically at whether people are more likely to misidentify a toy or a tool as a weapon after seeing a black face than after seeing a white face — even if the face belongs to a 5-year-old boy.

Researchers previously have found that thoughts about black men can lead to the misidentification of harmless objects as weapons, and UI assistant professor and lead author on the new study Andrew Todd said he and his colleagues were motivated by real-life events to investigate whether the same is true for black boys.

“It was the alarming rate at which young African Americans — particularly young black males — are shot and killed by police in the U.S.,” Todd told The Gazette. “Although such incidents are multiply determined, one potential contributor to their occurrence is that young black males are stereotypically associated with violence and criminality.”

But, according to UI researchers, extension of the common stereotype among black men to black boys did not seem inevitable. Some research has found variables that temper the biases, like facial expression. Other studies suggest old age might neutralize the threat posed by black males, as might having a “babyish face.”

“These findings suggest that young age (or features signaling youth) may be a potent cue signaling nonthreat,” according to the UI research.

To find out, UI researchers conducted four experiments that asked dozens of white undergraduates to categorize threatening and nonthreatening objects and words after first seeing images of black and white faces of various ages — both adults and children.

Participants were told to ignore the first image — the face — as it merely signaled the second image — the toy, tool, gun, or word — was about to appear. Their primary task, they were told, was to accurately categorize the second image.

“We consistently found that briefly presented faces of young black boys led to claims of having seen a gun when there was none,” according to the study.

When participants were asked to categorize a series of words as threatening or safe — like violent, dangerous, aggressive, innocent, friendly, and safe — they misidentified safe words as threatening words more often after seeing black faces than after seeing white faces.

All four experiments conducted through the UI study provided evidence that participants had less difficulty identifying threatening objects and words and more difficulty identifying nonthreatening stimuli after seeing black faces than after seeing white faces.

“This racial bias was equally strong following adult and child faces,” according to the study, which also showed the results were driven entirely by unintentional racial biases.

“Investigating potential implicit biases is important because people’s spontaneous reactions often diverge from their explicit beliefs, particularly for socially sensitive topics such as race,” according to the research.

UI investigators outlined further research needed to explore whether racial biases disappear at any age — even in infancy — and whether biases are less for black girls. And Todd said he and his colleagues are involved in a number of follow-up studies.

The new research emerges as the University of Iowa is in the midst of a theme semester focused on social justice titled, “Just Living.” Through different courses, events, and lectures, the semester explores values, beliefs, and positioning by examining history and looking forward.

The university also has launched a “BUILD initiative” aimed at providing UI faculty and staff knowledge and skills around creating a “welcoming and inclusive environment for all.” That program offers three classes related to implicit bias, said Lindsay Jarratt, diversity resources manager for the university’s Chief Diversity Office.

Jarratt said the university at all levels is examining ways it can implement strategies to combat implicit bias and encourage more “executive control.”

“There is a significant body of research that compellingly makes the case that we all act from unconscious bias, and that unconscious bias might be a better predictor of our behavior,” she said.

Some research suggests individuals can make progress by actively working to shift their biases, although Jarratt said she’s seen no evidence that individuals can eliminate biases entirely.

“That has huge implications,” she said, “on law enforcement, the criminal justice system, how we treat kids in school, and how we build structures.”

She said the issue of implicit bias has gotten a lot of attention of late — with a flood of news nationally involving officer-involved shootings of black men. MTV, for example, has launched a campaign called “Look Different” that challenge society to do just that and “erase the hidden racial, gender, and anti-LGBT bias all around us.”

Another campaign, “Project Implicit,” offers consulting, education, and training on implicit bias, diversity, and inclusion — including through a free online quiz allowing participants to gauge their subconscious biases.

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