Discrimination Against Blacks Linked To Dehumanization, Study Finds

Crude historical depictions of African Americans as ape-like may have  
disappeared from mainstream U.S. culture, but new research reveals  
that many Americans subconsciously associate blacks with apes.

ScienceDaily (Feb. 8, 2008) — Crude historical depictions of African  
Americans as ape-like may have disappeared from mainstream U.S.  
culture, but research presented in a new paper by psychologists at  
Stanford, Pennsylvania State University and the University of  
California-Berkeley reveals that many Americans subconsciously  
associate blacks with apes.

In addition, the findings show that society is more likely to condone  
violence against black criminal suspects as a result of its broader  
inability to accept African Americans as fully human, according to the  

Co-author Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford associate professor of  
psychology who is black, said she was shocked by the results,  
particularly since they involved subjects born after Jim Crow and the  
civil rights movement. "This was actually some of the most depressing  
work I have done," she said. "This shook me up. You have suspicions  
when you do the work—intuitions—you have a hunch. But it was hard to  
prepare for how strong [the black-ape association] was—how we were  
able to pick it up every time."

The paper, "Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical  
Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences," is the result of a  
series of six previously unpublished studies conducted by Eberhardt,  
Pennsylvania State University psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff (the  
lead author and a former student of Eberhardt's) and Matthew C.  
Jackson and Melissa J. Williams, graduate students at Penn State and  
Berkeley, respectively. The paper is scheduled to appear Feb. 7 in the  
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is published by  
the American Psychological Association.

The research took place over six years at Stanford and Penn State  
under Eberhardt's supervision. It involved mostly white male  
undergraduates. In a series of studies that subliminally flashed black  
or white male faces on a screen for a fraction of a second to "prime"  
the students, researchers found subjects could identify blurry ape  
drawings much faster after they were primed with black faces than with  
white faces.

The researchers consistently discovered a black-ape association even  
if the young adults said they knew nothing about its historical  
connotations. The connection was made only with African American  
faces; the paper's third study failed to find an ape association with  
other non-white groups, such as Asians. Despite such race-specific  
findings, the researchers stressed that dehumanization and animal  
imagery have been used for centuries to justify violence against many  
oppressed groups.

"Despite widespread opposition to racism, bias remains with us,"  
Eberhardt said. "African Americans are still dehumanized; we're still  
associated with apes in this country. That association can lead people  
to endorse the beating of black suspects by police officers, and I  
think it has lots of other consequences that we have yet to uncover."

Historical background

Scientific racism in the United States was graphically promoted in a  
mid-19th-century book by Josiah C. Nott and George Robins Gliddon  
titled Types of Mankind, which used misleading illustrations to  
suggest that "Negroes" ranked between "Greeks" and chimpanzees. "When  
we have a history like that in this country, I don't know how much of  
that goes away completely, especially to the extent that we are still  
dealing with severe racial inequality, which fuels and maintains those  
associations in ways that people are unaware," Eberhardt said.

Although such grotesque characterizations of African Americans have  
largely disappeared from mainstream U.S. society, Eberhardt noted that  
science education could be partly responsible for reinforcing the view  
that blacks are less evolved than whites. An iconic 1970 illustration,  
"March of Progress," published in the Time-Life book Early Man,  
depicts evolution beginning with a chimpanzee and ending with a white  
man. "It's a legacy of our past that the endpoint of evolution is a  
white man," Eberhardt said. "I don't think it's intentional, but when  
people learn about human evolution, they walk away with a notion that  
people of African descent are closer to apes than people of European  
descent. When people think of a civilized person, a white man comes to  

Consequences of socially endorsed violence

In the paper's fifth study, the researchers subliminally primed 115  
white male undergraduates with words associated with either apes (such  
as "monkey," "chimp," "gorilla") or big cats (such as "lion," "tiger,"  
"panther"). The latter was used as a control because both images are  
associated with violence and Africa, Eberhardt said. The subjects then  
watched a two-minute video clip, similar to the television program  
COPS, depicting several police officers violently beating a man of  
undetermined race. A mugshot of either a white or a black man was  
shown at the beginning of the clip to indicate who was being beaten,  
with a description conveying that, although described by his family as  
"a loving husband and father," the suspect had a serious criminal  
record and may have been high on drugs at the time of his arrest.

The students were then asked to rate how justified the beating was.  
Participants who believed the suspect was white were no more likely to  
condone the beating when they were primed with either ape or big cat  
words, Eberhardt said. But those who thought the suspect was black  
were more likely to justify the beating if they had been primed with  
ape words than with big cat words. "Taken together, this suggests that  
implicit knowledge of a Black-ape association led to marked  
differences in participants' judgments of Black criminal suspects,"  
the researchers write.

According to the paper's authors, this link has devastating  
consequences for African Americans because it "alters visual  
perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence  
against black suspects." For example, the paper's sixth study showed  
that in hundreds of news stories from 1979 to 1999 in the Philadelphia  
Inquirer, African Americans convicted of capital crimes were about  
four times more likely than whites convicted of capital crimes to be  
described with ape-relevant language, such as "barbaric," "beast,"  
"brute," "savage" and "wild." "Those who are implicitly portrayed as  
more ape-like in these articles are more likely to be executed by the  
state than those who are not," the researchers write.

The way forward

Despite the paper's findings, Eberhardt said she is optimistic about  
the future. "This work isn't arguing that there hasn't been any  
progress made or that we are living in the same society that existed  
in the 19th century," she said. "We have made a lot of progress on  
race issues, but we should recognize that racial bias isn't dead. We  
still need to be aware of that and aware of all the different ways  
[racism] can affect us, despite our intentions and motivations to be  
egalitarian. We still have work to do."

For Eberhardt, two stories of race exist in America. "One is about the  
disappearance of bias—that it's no longer with us," she said. "But the  
other is about the transformation of bias. It's not the egregious bias  
anymore, but it's modern bias, subtle bias." With both of these  
stories, she said, there is an understanding that society has moved  
beyond the historic battles centered around race. "We want to argue,  
with this work, that there is one old race battle that we're still  
fighting," she said. "That is the battle for blacks to be recognized  
as fully human."

This research was supported by a Stanford University Dean's Award to  
Jennifer Eberhardt.

Adapted from materials provided by Stanford University.