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Study finds anti-Black bias among White Americans is rooted in perceived threat, not dislike




New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds light on one of the underlying reasons behind anti-Black bias among White Americans. The research, conducted across five studies, reveals that this bias is in part driven by the perception of Black men as a threat. These findings supplement previous assumptions about racial bias and highlight the importance of understanding the nuances of how individuals unconsciously perceive different racial groups.New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds light on one of the underlying reasons behind anti-Black bias among White Americans. The research, conducted across five studies, reveals that this bias is in part driven by the perception of Black men as a threat. These findings supplement previous assumptions about racial bias and highlight the importance of understanding the nuances of how individuals unconsciously perceive different racial groups.

Recent events have underscored the devastating consequences of anti-Black bias, particularly in encounters with law enforcement. Studies have shown that police apply force against Black individuals at disproportionately higher rates than against other racial groups. In lab studies, when tasked with decisions like whether to “shoot,” White participants tend to make quicker decisions to shoot armed targets and slower decisions not to shoot unarmed targets when those targets are Black. This bias extends even to Black participants themselves. But is this bias solely due to a stronger dislike of Black individuals than other racial groups?

“As recent events have highlighted, the consequences of anti-Black bias can be deadly,” explained study author David S. March, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University. “The typical approach to prejudice as valenced (i.e., bad vs. good) evaluations implies that negative evaluations of Black Americans is the problem and redressing the unfavorable attitude is the solution. But I noticed that approach does not easily track field and laboratory data.”

“I suggested that many instances of anti-Black bias, like shooter bias, may be more strongly driven by a danger rather than negative association. That is, instead of dislike, the underlying problem might be threat. So, I wanted to test if White Americans implicitly process Black individuals as a survival threat and/or in terms of negativity. Showing a unique or stronger Black-threat association would grant credence to the idea that threat and not dislike drive much anti-Black bias.”

To investigate the underlying causes of anti-Black bias, the researchers conducted five separate studies. In the first two studies, a total of 213 White undergraduate students participated. They were tasked with evaluating various target images as good or bad when primed by Black or White male faces. The target images included threatening, negative, and positive stimuli. These studies aimed to distinguish between threat and negativity associations in the context of race. Across studies, participants were quicker to evaluate threatening targets as “bad” when primed with Black than White faces, but this did not apply to negative targets. Importantly, the effect was not limited to weapons but extended to other forms of threats.


In the third and fourth studies, 445 White undergraduates participated in experiments that involved categorizing emotive faces displayed by Black, White, and Asian males as dangerous, negative, or positive. Mouse-tracking technology and a novel metric designed by the authors was used to measure the time it took participants to make these categorizations, providing insights into the decision-making process. In these studies, mouse-tracking revealed that White participants began categorizing Black faces as dangerous earlier in the decision process, particularly when they displayed anger. This finding suggests a strong association between Black men and threat, which again was not observed for negativity.

The fifth and final study involved 206 White undergraduates who assessed threatening and negative target words as “dangerous” or “negative” when primed by Black or White names. This study aimed to determine whether the perception of threat outweighed negativity in association with Black individuals. This study reinforced the first 4 by showing that White participants were faster to evaluate threatening and negative words as “dangerous” when primed by Black names, further emphasizing the association of Black men with threat.


Overall, the five studies consistently revealed that White Americans automatically associate Black men with physical threat. This association was found to be unique to Black men and did not extend to Asian men. The studies also indicated that this association with threat was stronger than the association with negative valence when these two concepts were paired in competition.

“So what we have is a clear pattern showing that White Americans automatically associate Black men with threat,” March told PsyPost. “And in no study did I find an automatic association linking Black men to negativity. So, when parsing out threat from negativity and isolating the effects of negativity, there did not appear to be an automatic Black-negative link.”

“So, the idea that prejudice is driven by dislike or disdain may be incorrect. Instead, the Black-threat association was consistent. Indeed, I even found that same effect in a follow-up series of studies where data was collected from Black participants, implying that the stereotype is so pervasive in the US culture that it is even internalized by the ingroup.”


“Given that it appears a Black-threat association is quite prevalent, prejudices driven by threat are going to have unique and powerful impacts on behavior,” March explained. “This work implies that Black Americans may disproportionately suffer from the pervasiveness of a socially reinforced Black-dangerous stereotype. Consider police use-of-force, which may be heightened in the presence of someone perceived as more dangerous than someone perceived as less dangerous.”

While these studies provide valuable insights into the automatic anti-Black bias rooted in perceived threat, there are some limitations to consider. For instance, the participants in these studies were predominantly White undergraduates, which may not fully represent the diversity of the population. Although March recently replicated these findings among Black Americans, future research in this area should explore the generalizability of these findings to more diverse populations and investigate the long-term implications of these automatic associations. Understanding the mechanisms behind racial bias is crucial for addressing and combating it effectively.

“As I detailed in the manuscript, ‘Individuals raised in the same society likely integrate some of the same associations, regardless of whether the stereotype regards their in-group,’” March said. “By distinguishing the unique presence of a widely-held Black-threat association, the underlying source of the harmful outcomes of such bias can be seen as the result of a systemic societal problem and can then begin to be addressed at that level.”

The study, “Danger or Dislike: Distinguishing Threat from Negative Valence as Sources of Automatic Anti-Black Bias,” was authored by David S. March, Lowell Gaertner, and Michael A. Olson.

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