In the year after Michael Brown's shooting, 314 other Black people were killed by police in America. Brown's shooting and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement may have brought mainstream attention to violence Black people face with the police, but Black people have always faced this violence and bias. It's such a problem that parents teach their children how to deal with police, even before they hit kindergarten.
This bias is clearly a product of racism, and new research in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology points to the stereotypes around body size that contribute.
“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, PhD, of Montclair State University, said in a statement. “Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.”
According to the study's findings, these stereotypes definitely don't "comport with reality." More than 950 online participants from the U.S. were shown photos of white and Black faces of men who were the same height and weight. Those participants were then asked to estimate the mens' height, weight, strength, and muscularity.
Participants overwhelmingly thought of the Black men as bigger and stronger than the white men. Just from their faces.
It might seem strange. How could anyone possibly guess who was bigger when all they saw was a face? But that's exactly the point. Even though these participants had no context clues to guess if the white men or the Black men were larger or stronger, they still assumed the Black men would be. The researchers also tested Black men against Black men, and found that those with darker skin and more stereotypically "Black" facial features were even more likely to be thought large and muscular.
Stereotypes like these contribute to everyday racism as well as to violence from the police.
Interestingly, even Black participants assumed the Black men would be bigger. But there's an important difference in their attitude about a Black man's size.
“Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed,” Wilson said in the statement.
The participants he's talking about, though, are (no shock here) not the Black participants. Black people who took the online test may have assumed Black men were bigger and stronger, but they did not think those men were any more harmful or deserving of police force than the white men.
Researchers say that this study may point to stereotypes at play in fatal police shootings of Black men and boys, and it seems pretty clear that it does. Still, they caution that the study was not done on real-life scenarios and suggest more research about how exactly this bias comes into play in altercations between Black men and the police.