Study Proves Subconscious Bias Against Dark-Skinned Blacks

What experiment did researchers do to produce these results and how do their findings line up with previous studies?

By Chris Hoenig


When a person knows a Black person is intelligent, he or she is more likely to subconsciously believe that person has lighter skin than the person really does, proving a subconscious bias against dark-skinned Blacks, according to a new study.

Researchers at San Francisco State University divided study participants—125 students at the university who received partial course credit for taking part—into two groups, subliminally ingraining the word "educated" into the minds of one group and the words "ignorant" and "athletic" into the minds of the other. Participants were all then shown a picture of the same Black man. Later, after going through a distraction exercise, they went through a process where they were shown four different pictures or groups of pictures, which included the original picture and/or up to six others, each one altered to change the skin tone—three were lighter (by 25, 37 and 50 percent), three were darker (by the same proportions). After seeing each picture/group of pictures, participants had to identify whether the original photo had been on the screen.

The results spoke for themselves, with the students in the "educated" subset more likely to not only select the wrong photo, but roughly twice as likely to select the picture that was 50 percent lighter than the original. Overall, they were 20 percent more likely to choose a picture that had been lightened than the "ignorant" and "athletic" subsets, and only a fraction more likely to choose one of the three that had been darkened. The "ignorant" and "athletic" subsets were the most likely, by about 20–25 percent, to choose the picture with the darkest skin.

"Black individuals who defy social stereotypes might not challenge social norms sufficiently but rather may be remembered as lighter, perpetuating status-quo beliefs," the study explained.

"Whereas encountering a Black individual after being primed with the word 'educated' might pose a challenge to existing beliefs, encountering a Black individual after being primed with the word 'ignorant' would likely not require resolution or a misremembering of skin tone to align with these beliefs."

In order to prove their findings, the researchers ran the experiment again with 35 more students, who also received partial course credit for participating. This time, the researchers removed the term "athletic," which had brought results very similar to the "ignorant" group in the first experiment, keeping only "educated" and "ignorant" for the study. In addition to the Black man's photo, they also added an image of a red fox and a computer-generated greeble, both of which also had corresponding lightened and darkened photos (by 25, 37 and 50 percent, just as the man's photo had been altered). The second study reinforced the results of the first, only this time the participants from the "educated" subset were even more likely to choose one of the three lightened images of the man. The study also found the bias applies only to humans; neither the fox nor the greeble had any significant changes based on the altering of the images.

A deeper dive into the study's results also found that the bias exists across all races and ethnicities. "It is pervasive across and within diverse ethnic and racial groups, including whites, Latinos, and Blacks," according to the study's authors.

Researchers say the findings back up previous studies that suggest stronger negative stereotypes are applied to Blacks who have darker skin. These negative stereotypes, according to those other studies, have resulted in longer prison terms for darker-skinned Black men and women.

The study's findings are published in SAGE Journals.

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