Why Americans See Black Men as a Threat

We don't just see skin.

Recent shootings of black men by white police officers have highlighted a deep, uncomfortable truth about many Americans: They fear black men. The stereotype of the black man as the aggressor, a physically powerful, unpredictable product of poverty, has held sway since the Great Migration saw southern African-American communities relocate to northern cities, triggering “white flight.” That’s obviously a problem, full stop, but it’s a particularly intractable problem in stressful situations according to Colin Holbrook, who researches behavior, evolution, and culture at UCLA. Holbrook focuses on decision-making under perceived threat, an inarguable factor in the deaths, most recently, of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

And Holbrook’s got a theory about why these American tragedies seem to keep repeating.

Holbrooks research became part of the national conversation last summer when he published a study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior showing that people imagine blacks and Hispanics to be larger than they really are. Holbrook created stories about white and black men, making sure that the characters had stereotypical names for their race (Wyatt, Connor, or Garrett for white men; Jamal, DeShawn, or Darnell for black men). He then asked participants to imagine their characters. Were they aggressive? Were they respectable? Would you be afraid of them?

“If you look at the data, [whites and blacks] are about the same height and weight,” Holbrook tells Inverse, pointing to figures that suggest the average American black man is just over five feet, nine inches tall and weighs roughly 196 pounds. The average American white man? Just over five feet, nine inches tall and roughly 196 pounds. No difference.

As he points out, this isn’t breaking news. Blacks and whites have been the same size for a long time. What is interesting, he notes, is how that size is perceive in light of preconceptions about “prestige.”

Here’s where the racism outs. Holbrook and his team found that when a white character was described as physically large, participants imagined him to be prestigious and respectable, commanding a room and owning it. But change one descriptor — add “black” to the list of traits — and toss on a culturally stereotypical name and everything changes: Participants imagine someone potentially dangerous, probably poor, maybe criminal.

This is where it becomes very tempting to turn to history for an explanation. Sure, the past can no doubt teach us a lot, but Steven Neuberg, an experimental social psychologist, thinks there’s something deeper at play.

Neuberg says conscious organisms tend to believe in two overlapping worlds: a “desperate” one, where the environment is harsh and unpredictable and predators abound, and a “hopeful” one, where an organism is predictably comfortable. Neuberg suggests that humans sort people by which world they come from. People from the less predictable world are treated as dangerous aliens even as genuinely dangerous people from the comfortable world (think: mortgage lenders) are perceived to be of higher standing. Blackness is the catalyst for this sort of thinking, but reactions become unpredictable because of a disconcerting otherness that is not purely a product of racial difference.

From an evolutionary perspective, this way of thinking has some value. You’re walking down the street and you see a 20-something woman, and then a middle-aged man. You guess what they do for a living. You guess what they want out of life. You guess where they’re going. You don’t necessarily do this intentionally or even consciously, but you do it nonetheless. Neuberg suggests that you’re just hardwired that way. After all, early humans had to think about the savannah’s other inhabitants in pretty stark terms: friend, foe, or food.

That scenario was based only on gender and age, which humans have possessed from the dawn of their existence. But race entered the picture when humans started migrating from modern-day Africa, their melanin adjusting to the climates they moved to, creating the myriad skin tones that we have today. Try the mind experiment yourself and you’ll see that depending on which race you assign the woman and the man, the accompanying biographies change.

In a diverse country like the United States, race complicates everyone’s story. Neuberg says that in general, young men tend to have stereotypes of being more criminal, more impulsive, and more dangerous. The narratives we imagine for black men are particularly bleak. The problem, in other words, is both the reality born of historical prejudice and injustice, and the fantasy, born of a natural impulse and subconscious prejudice.

It’s this divide that creates a sense of enmity between young black men and cops, one that’s become increasingly stark in the past few years. “You see why police are wary, why people of color are wary,” Neuberg says. “From both perspectives, the other one is considered dangerous. And so much of that comes from thoughts each group has about the other groups background: for young black males, the fact that white cops see themselves in a position of power and able to dole out punishment at will and for no apparent reason; for white cops, a sense that young black males are out to stir up trouble. And when you toss in the fact that young black men might be more likely to be economically distressed, it further alienates each group.”

David Amodio, a neuroscientist at New York University, has dedicated his career to figuring out the way the brain responds to prejudice, and he agrees with Holbrook that much of the modern basis for racism against black people has to do with economic competition. In a study published in the June 2014 issue of PNAS, Amodio and his co-author found that economic recessions substantially exaggerate racial disparities. Black people were viewed as darker and more stereotypically black in the aftermath of recessions, playing into the idea that black people were “stealing jobs” or being “lazy.” Perhaps most disturbingly, Amodio says, whites are more likely to perceive blacks as animalistic during hard times. Whites further marginalize blacks during economic recessions, for instance, because resource constraints exacerbate existing inequalities.

So can anything be done? Holbrook notes that immigrants in other countries face similar economic barriers and racial prejudice and suggests that this might be a deeply ingrained human response to the other. (It’s a particularly distressing fact given that the vast majority of black Americans come from American families.) And while education can help ease tensions, it’s important to confront the reality that the human brain reacts to stimuli in illogical, but scientifically comprehensible ways when under stress.

“These are deeply entrenched concepts in the mind,” Holbrook says. “There’s no simple educational moment thats going to flip these ideas.”

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