Perceptions of Black Men as Bigger, More Menacing Than Whites Surface in a New Study

Mar 14, 2017

Police union President Steve Loomis said after the shooting that the photo of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was misleading.
Credit Family of Tamir Rice

A new study introduced with the Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice finds that people perceive young black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men.  

 

The study published by the American Psychological Association asked nearly a thousand online participants to compare color photographs of young white and black men of equal height and weight. John Paul Wilson, a professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey says, consistently, participants believed the black men were stronger, more muscular and more menacing.

 

“People tended to see these black young men taller, heavier, stronger, more capable of harm and thus more deserving of physical force in a hypothetical physical altercation.”

 

The beholder's eye
Most of the participants looking at the pictures were white.  Wilson says even participants who were black misperceived size, but there was a key difference.

 

“Though they did perceive the black men as larger, but their size-bias was substantially smaller than the size-bias shown by white participants.

 

“And another key finding from that study was that even though these black participants did show some size misperceptions, those misperceptions did not lead to the perception that black men were also more threatening.”

 

Older and more responsible
This study published by the American Psychological Association follows a 2014 study of police officers that showed they were more likely to see black boys as older and more responsible for their actions than white children.

 

Wilson says a next step with his study may be recruiting police officers to see if “to see whether they actually show the same biases or not.”

 

“There’s some previous research looking at something called a ‘shooter bias’ that actually found that police don’t show a shooter bias as much as civilians, so they don’t tend to associate black men with the threat of weapons quite as strongly as civilians do.”

 

But given the speed with which police must make decisions on whether someone is a threat, Wilson says studying police perceptions of size more closely is crucial.

 

The study notes that police often cite the size of black men and boys they shoot in explaining their actions. After police shot Tamir Rice in 2014, the police union president described the 5’7” boy as “menacing” and “a 12-year-old in an adult body.”

 

The research of "Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat," was done by Wilson, Miami University's Kurt Hugenberg and Nicholas O. Rule of the University of Toronto.