A Bad Economy May Affect Black People In More Ways Than You Thought

Do Economic Downturns Make People Racist?

It's no secret that when the economy takes a turn for the worse, racial minorities often take a disproportionate hit. But why?

A new study may provide at least part of the answer--and it's rather disturbing.

“It is well known that socioeconomic disparities between White Americans and racial minorities expand dramatically under conditions of economic scarcity,” study co-author Dr. David Amodio, a psychology professor at New York University, said in a written statement. “Our findings indicate that scarcity changes the way that the people visually perceive another person’s race, and that this perceptual distortion can contribute to disparities.”

Amadio and a colleague set out to see just how economic scarcity might affect perceptions of race by conducting a series of experiments in which non-Blacks responded to images of faces "that ranged in appearance from 100 percent White to 100 percent Black."

face morph
The continuum of morphed faces used in the experiments, ranging from "100% white" to "100% black" in 10% increments.

Before looking at the faces, some of the study participants completed a questionnaire about their views on economic competition between African-Americans and White Americans -- answering the extent to which they agreed with statements like "When Blacks make economic gains, Whites lose out economically." Other participants were "subliminally primed" before looking at the faces by watching a computer screen that briefly displayed a series of emotionally neutral words like "antique" or "scenic" or a series of words related to scarcity, like "sparse" and "resource."

Next, all subjects viewed the images of the faces (see above) and were asked to categorize each face as either "Black" or "White."

What happened? The study participants who indicated that they believed racial groups compete for economic resources tended to identify more of the mixed-race faces as Black. And so did the subjects who were primed with scarcity-related words, as compared to subjects primed with neutral words.

In other words, the results suggest that economic scarcity causes non-Blacks to see mixed-race faces as "Blacker" than they are.

Previous studies showed that African-Americans with "more stereotypically Black" features experience more discrimination. So the researchers ventured out into a local park to look for evidence that changes in non-Blacks' perceptions of African-Americans have a direct effect on how African-Americans are treated.

The researchers showed White people two blurry faces deemed "Black" in the earlier experiments, and then asked them to imagine splitting $15 between the two faces. Most of the participants in this study wanted to distribute money equally but were unable to do so because the experimenters required that the money be distributed in whole-dollar increments. Given that constraint, the participants tended to give less money to the face that looked darker and had "more stereotypically Black" features.

But if the divvying up of money indicated racism on the part of the participants, it wasn't conscious.

“The study’s findings point to a new challenge to discrimination reduction since perceptual effects appear to operate without a person’s awareness,” study co-author Amy Krosch, a doctoral candidate at the university, said in the statement. “People typically assume that what they see is an accurate representation of the world, so if their initial perceptions of race are actually distorted by economic factors, people may not even realize the potential for bias.”

The research was published online June 9 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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