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Black Men Perceived as Bigger Than White Men, Study Shows

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Black men are often perceived as being larger and more capable of causing harm than white men who are the same size, a new study found.


“Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat,” a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concluded that “people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically threatening (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men.”

The researchers conducted a total of seven different studies. Some studies only included non-Black participants. Participants of all races consistently perceived Black men as being larger, taller and more muscular.

In one study, participants viewed photographs of Black and white high school athletes’ faces (researchers chose pictures of football players being recruited to play in college because information on their height and weight was publicly available to them). Bodies were cropped out of the pictures presented. The men in the photographs were, on average, of similar height and weight (researchers noted that the average height and weight for the white men was actually marginally higher than that of the Black men). But participants did not see the men this way.

“We found that these estimates were consistently biased. Participants judged the Black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size,” said John Paul Wilson, PhD, of Montclair State University, one of the study’s lead authors.

Although Black respondents also believed the Black subjects were larger and more muscular than the white ones, it was “to a considerably lesser extent” than how the white respondents perceived the images. Black participants also perceived the white subjects as larger than the white respondents did, but, “because of our use of within-subjects error bars, their ratings did not significantly differ,” researchers note.

However, greater differences arose when researchers asked about subjects’ harm capability.

“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.

According to the study, this only applies to the non-Black participants:

“Although both Black and White participants perceived Black targets as more physically muscular than White targets, the difference was significantly smaller for Black participants. Furthermore, Black participants did not show the race-based difference in harm perceptions that White participants did.”

Black participants saw Black and white subjects as similarly capable of causing harm.

Researchers theorize that white and Black participants may have perceived Blacks as larger and more muscular than whites due to stereotypes rather than “a threat-looming mechanism.” The capability to cause harm could be attributed to “an outgroup threat”:

“These results suggest that multiple processes may contribute to racially biased size and harm judgments, and that they do so differentially for different perceiver groups. For White perceivers, group-specific stereotypes and outgroup threat cognitions could act in concert to produce strong biases in both types of judgments. However, Black perceivers may subscribe to size stereotypes without the associated group-based threat. For these perceivers, Black targets presumably are judged as larger merely as a result of stereotypes, and not because of a threat-looming mechanism.”

The same “outgroup” threat could also suggest why Blacks perceived whites as being slightly larger than they really were — although, researchers emphasize, the difference here was not significant.

“Such perceptions may have disturbing consequences for how both civilians and law enforcement personnel perceive and behave toward Black individuals,” the study concludes, adding, “We hope that stakeholders are able to apply this information to formulate interventions that can meaningfully reduce these biases in the future.”

Previous research from the American Psychological Association (APA) drew similar conclusions. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” published in 2014, found that Black children and adults over the age of nine are seen “as significantly less innocent than White children and adults or children and adults generally.”

One of the study’s authors, Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. 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.”

Goff said that further research should be conducted.

“We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial differences was linked to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” he said.

Deadly Misconceptions of Size

As violence against Black men at the hands of police officers has taken the national spotlight over the last few years, size has in fact been part of the conversation.

The study describes the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed in Cleveland in 2014.

“A representative of the Cleveland Police later explained the shooting by saying ‘Tamir Rice is in the wrong. He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.'”

The study also notes the aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin, who was a teenager at the time of his death but was mistaken for someone much older:

“In the wake of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin (an unarmed Black teen in Florida), images circulated depicting Martin as older and larger than he was. In one notorious example, people widely shared a photograph of a man with facial tattoos in what was purported to be an up-to-date representation of Martin. In fact, it was a rap musician known as [The] Game who was in his 30s in the photograph.”

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