April V. Taylor
The fact that America is still struggling to move beyond racism is no secret, and a new study, the third of its kind this year, supports the fact that white people, who are certain they are not racist, come to some profoundly racist, prejudiced and stereotypical conclusions about a person based simply on whether or not their name is Black-sounding. This latest study left coauthor and University of California anthropologist Colin Holbrook more “disgusted” than he ever has been with his own data.
Studies going back to at least 2003 have looked at how people respond to Black-sounding names, revealing along the way that stereotypical white names receive 50 percent more callbacks than resumes with stereotypical Black names.A past study also reveals that when residents with Black-sounding names contact their local government, schools or libraries, they are less likely to receive a response.
Regarding this most recent study, Holbrook states, “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”
This implicit bias has much more tragic effects than unemployment or underemployment as evidenced by a March 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that tested 176 mostly white, male police officers to see if they held an unconscious “dehumanization bias” against Black people. Not surprisingly, researchers found that officers consistently dehumanized Black people and that those officers who did were most likely to have a history of using force against Black children in custody. The same study also found that white, female college students consistently perceived Black children over the age of 10 to be “significantly less innocent” than their white peers.
Author of the March 2020 study Phillip Goff points out, “Children in most societies are considered to be 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.”
This fear could be the reason why Black people so often wind up being victims of violence. Holbrook highlights the recent study data, stating, “The participant sample, despite being slightly left of center politically, automatically attributed violence to individuals based solely on having names like Darnell or Juan, whereas names such as Connor automatically led to expectations of prestige and status. This seems to clearly echo the fear of Black and Latino men in our society, which is ironic and disturbing as they are often the victims of violence – precisely because people are afraid of them.”
Further explaining how white people’s fear of Black people, Holbrook goes on to say, “The surprising finding was the difference between the white and black characters with respect to violence and status. Put simply, white characters with names like Connor or Garrett could be imagined as somewhat violent, but this did not lower (or affect) the amount of social prestige that they were imagined to have. By contrast, if black characters with names like Darnell or DeShawn were imagined as having a temper, this was strongly incompatible with the amount of status that they were imagined to have in society. We initially expected tendencies toward violence to lower the status attributed to the white characters, too, but this was not the case.”
The mind boggling irony of white people’s fear of Black people is that it is white Americans who have inflicted centuries of physical, political, and legislative violence on Black Americans. That violence is what made white power possible. The answers to how America moves forward and makes racism a thing of the past by dismantling the sordid cycle of fear and violence that defines race in America continue to be elusive and enigmatic, especially when people who do not see themselves as racist are still driven to act in racist ways because of implicit bias. What is America when Black people still do not know the freedom of living in a society where something as personal and defining as a name is empowering rather than being one more pivot point for the racism and prejudice that permeates every aspect of Black life in America to negatively define their existence?