Americans See Innocent Black Kids as Guilty Adults

A new study shows how implicit bias changes dramatically perceptions of black children.

I’ve written before about the power of implicit racial bias—how it alters our perceptions and shapes our actions. Blacks, and black men in particular, are seen as unusually violent and aggressive, which—as we’ve seen with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis—can have deadly consequences for everyday life.

Of course, it’s not enough to say there’s implicit bias; you have to prove it. And over at The Wire, Philip Bump highlights a disturbing new study that measures bias as it applies to African American boys. Here’s Bump:

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aimed at figuring out the extent to which black children were likely to be treated differently than their white peers solely based on race. More specifically, the authors wanted to figure out the extent to which black kids were dehumanized. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” author Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA told the American Psychological Association. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Researchers used implicit association tests to gauge racial attitudes and observe how people perceived misdemeanor or felony acts. The results were startling. When comparing felony acts by whites, blacks, and Latinos, respondents overestimated black boys’ ages by 4.53 years. Police officers, who were also included in the pool of participants, overestimated their ages by 4.59 years. To put this in more concrete terms, when participants saw a 14 year-old African American boy, they perceived him as an 18 to 19-year-old adult. And the effect of this was to deny the presumption of innocence—after all, adults are seen as fully responsible for their actions.

As Bump notes, this goes a long way toward explaining the disciplinary disparity between blacks and whites in public schools. It also helps us understand the generalized fear of black teenagers (see: “the knockout game”) as well as the regular stories of police confrontation and brutality, from the 14-year-old who was choked and beaten for his “dehumanizing stare” to the other 14-year-old who was stopped, frisked, and sexually assaulted.

During the George Zimmerman trial, right-wing bloggers circulated a photo of the “real Trayvon Martin” who, in their telling, was a muscled, heavily-tattooed thug, not an innocent 17-year-old.

In reality, it was a picture of The Game, a 34-year-old rapper. If you want a clearer illustration of what bias and racism can do to people, there it is.