The Situationist

Race and Dehumanization

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 15, 2012

I was very sorry to miss the Implicit Racial Bias Across the Law Book Launch Conference yesterday.  It’s rare for such a great set of law and mind sciences speakers to assemble in one spot and the topic continues to be of great importance for all those committed to ironing out injustice in our legal system.  But stuck in Philly, I did manage to “participate” vicariously . . . or, perhaps, more accurately: while doing some background research for some experiments that I am running with Penn’s Geoff Goodwin, I came across an article that I had overlooked a few years back that is of certain interest to all those who study law and race.

The article, Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences, offers a fascinating investigation of the mental association between Blacks and apes and its devastating consequences.  As the authors (Phillip Atiba Goff, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Melissa J. Williams, and Matthew Christian Jackson) explain,

Historical representations explicitly depicting Blacks as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States, yet a mental association between Blacks and apes remains. Here, the authors demonstrate that U.S. citizens implicitly associate Blacks and apes. In a series of laboratory studies, the authors reveal how this association influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgments in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black–ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects. In an archival study of actual criminal cases, the authors show that news articles written about Blacks who are convicted of capital crimes are more likely to contain ape-relevant language than news articles written about White convicts.  Moreover, those who are implicitly portrayed as more apelike in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not. The authors argue that examining the subtle persistence of specific historical representations such as these may not only enhance contemporary research on dehumanization, stereotyping, and implicit processes but also highlight common forms of discrimination that previously have gone unrecognized.

Check out the whole article here.

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