‘Educated’ Black Men Appear ‘Whiter’ in Memory

Proof: The human mind has some awful tendencies.

The array of skin tones the researchers used in the study. When primed for "educated," participants would more often misidentify a black man as having a lighter skin tone.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
See more stories about...
Brian Resnick
Jan. 15, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

Read­ing an aca­dem­ic pa­per on ra­cism is like read­ing an ali­en’s take on the hu­man spe­cies.

In their sum­mary of the way hu­mans think, these ali­ens de­scribe ra­cism as “phen­o­typ­ic fea­tures as­so­ci­ated with the so­cial cat­egor­iz­a­tion of ra­cial groups [that] have been strongly linked to ste­reo­typ­ing, pre­ju­dice, and dis­crim­in­a­tion.” Don’t those hu­mans know those “phen­o­typ­ic fea­tures” (i.e., ge­net­ic factors) that form race only ac­count for 6 to 10 per­cent of the ge­net­ic dif­fer­ences between hu­mans? Silly hu­mans. Of­ten this ste­reo­typ­ing mani­fests it­self in what’s called “skin tone memory bi­as,” or, in the com­mon tongue, ra­cism.

For all their aca­dem­ic eu­phem­isms, the psy­cho­lo­gists on a new study in the Journ­al Sage Open, are not ali­ens. But they do coolly de­scribe the way sub­jects im­pli­citly as­so­ci­ate “ig­nor­ance” with dark skin tone, and “edu­ca­tion” with light skin tone.

The stu­dents tested at San Fran­cisco State Uni­versity were shown words like “ig­nor­ant” and “edu­cated” for 33 mil­li­seconds. These sub­lim­in­al prompts are part of a phe­nomen­on known as prim­ing, a ma­nip­u­la­tion by re­search­ers that preps par­ti­cipants’ minds for a giv­en ex­per­i­ment. After the sub­lim­in­al word, they saw a pic­ture of a black man.

Prim­ing is a power­ful tool for psy­cho­lo­gists. Ba­sic­ally, simple words or cues ac­tiv­ate se­mant­ic net­works in the brain and make the ideas con­nec­ted to that se­mant­ic net­work easi­er to ac­cess. The ef­fect is com­monly il­lus­trated by a simple ex­per­i­ment: When a re­search­er hands a per­son a cup of warm wa­ter, they’re more likely to de­scribe someone as be­ing warm or friendly. In flash­ing the word “ig­nor­ance” be­fore their par­ti­cipant’s eyes, the psy­cho­lo­gists make everything with an “ig­nor­ance” as­so­ci­ation in their par­ti­cipant’s mind all the more ac­cess­ible.

What they found was this: The stu­dents primed with “edu­cated” were more likely to rate the black man’s skin tone as light­er on a memory test later. “Black in­di­vidu­als who defy so­cial ste­reo­types might not chal­lenge so­cial norms suf­fi­ciently but rather may be re­membered as light­er, per­petu­at­ing status quo be­liefs,” the au­thors sum­mar­ize. That is, when primed to think of a “black per­son” and “edu­cated” in the same men­tal space, the black per­son be­comes whiter. The ste­reo­type dis­torts the memory.

The re­search­ers elab­or­ate:

Where­as en­coun­ter­ing a Black in­di­vidu­al after be­ing primed with the word edu­cated might pose a chal­lenge to ex­ist­ing be­liefs, en­coun­ter­ing a Black in­di­vidu­al after be­ing primed with the word ig­nor­ant would likely not re­quire res­ol­u­tion or a mis­re­mem­ber­ing of skin tone to align with these be­liefs.

The ef­fects of skin bi­as have real con­sequences: The “more black” a per­son ap­pears, the more they are likely to be sen­tenced to death (in an ex­per­i­ment). In the real world, dark­er-skinned wo­men were found to spend more time in jail.

Now, it’s un­fair to la­bel this study’s par­ti­cipants as out­right ra­cists. Just be­cause a sub­lim­in­al cue changes their per­cep­tions of a per­son doesn’t mean those per­cep­tions change the way they might en­gage with or treat that per­son in the real world. What the study does show is that these con­nec­tions ex­ist, and they can subtly change our be­ha­vi­or without us ever know­ing it.

What We're Following See More »
WEST WING REDUX
Allison Janney Takes to the Real White House Podium
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Carolyn Kaster/AP

STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
6 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
×