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Unconscious Stereotypes and Black Males

051614_Leland_WareA March 6, 2014, article published in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education featured an activity developed by a community college adviser. It was intended to address stereotypes about minority men.

Attendees wrote lists of negative stereotypes that they discussed afterward. The other exercise consisted of responding to a series of “true or false” statements concerning stereotypes about Black men. The participants hoped the discussions would change the attitudes of the staffs at their institutions.

Similar concerns are evident in President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Participating foundations and businesses are committing substantial resources to change the “often-damaging narrative” about young, minority men.

However, any changes that might be made will not be easy, as the problem goes much deeper than most observers assume. Much of the discrimination that occurs today results from unconscious stereotypes that are not widely understood.

In the decades following the enactment of the civil rights laws of the 1960s, old-fashioned, overt discrimination has begun to fade. Klansmen and skinheads are not socially acceptable. However, extensive research conducted over the last 30 years has shown that racial prejudice is pervasive among many who consciously subscribe to a belief in racial equality. Many individuals who believe they have positive attitudes about racial minorities unconsciously harbor racial prejudices. This can cause individuals to engage in conduct that disadvantages minorities without consciously realizing they are doing so. The discrimination occurs when it is not obvious to the perpetrator or when they can point to a race-neutral justification for the actions. Some academics have labeled this phenomenon “colorblind racism.”

Prejudice and stereotypes are the byproducts of ordinary perceptions, categorization, learning, memory and judgment. Categorization is the process by which ideas and objects are recognized, differentiated and understood. It is an essential cognitive activity that enables individuals to reduce the enormous amounts of information they encounter every day to a manageable level. Categorization allows individuals to relate new experiences to old experiences; the unfamiliar becomes familiar. Each object and event is perceived, remembered, grouped into a category and identified. The process is automatic and operates in milliseconds.

The categorization process can also trigger stereotypes. When an individual is seen as a member of a social group, perceptions about that group’s characteristics and behavior influence judgments made about them. Stereotyping involves the creation of a mental image of a “typical” member of a particular category. Individuals are perceived as undifferentiated members of a group, lacking any significant differences from other individuals within the group.

When a particular behavior by a group member is observed, the viewer evaluates the behavior through the lens of the stereotype. This causes the observer to conclude that the conduct has empirically confirmed his stereotyped belief about the group. Stereotypes can be so deeply internalized that they persist in the face of facts that directly contradict the stereotype.

Professor Frances Aboud, who conducted research on prejudice in young children, confirmed that stereotypes develop at an early age. In a study with young children aged three to five, volunteers were given a half-dozen positive adjectives such as “good,” “kind,” “clean” and an equal number of negative adjectives such as “mean,” “cruel” and “bad.” They asked children to match each adjective to one of the two drawings. One drawing depicted a White person and the other showed a Black person. The results showed that 70 percent of the children assigned nearly every positive adjective to the White faces and nearly every negative adjective to the Black faces.

Young children experience a world in which most people who live in nice houses are White. Most people on television are White, especially the people who were shown in positions of authority, dignity and power. Most of the storybook characters they see are White, and it is the White children who perform heroic, clever and generous feats.

Children, who are rapidly orienting themselves in their environments, receive messages about race, not once or twice, but thousands of times. Everywhere a child looks, whether it is on television, in movies, in books or online, their inferences are confirmed. As they grow into adults, these messages remain in their unconscious psyches and can be triggered by the categorization process. This provides the foundation for unconscious discrimination.

Eradicating negative stereotypes about Black men will be difficult, as they are longstanding and ubiquitous. Talking about them will not change people who believe they are egalitarian. However, individuals can be made aware of their unconscious biases.

Harvard’s Implicit Association Test is an experiment that measures the speed at which two concepts are associated. The research shows that unconscious stereotyping and prejudice are widespread. Test takers consistently made more associations between the faces of African-Americans and words having negative concepts. Positive concepts were associated with the faces of Whites. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have taken the test producing similar results.

Recognizing and understanding unconscious discrimination provides a starting point for addressing this problem.

Leland Ware is the Louis L. Redding Chair and professor of law and public policy at the University of Delaware. He was previously a professor at St. Louis University School of Law. Before going into teaching, Ware was a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

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