New York, N.Y. (CBSDC) — People perceive race differently in tough economic times, with African-Americans appearing “blacker” to whites – a trend reflecting that many social groups become more exclusionary when presented with “competition” for scarce resources.

A new study from New York University finds that people subconsciously become more prejudiced of people outside their social groups during times of “limited” resources and other situations of financial downturn.

In the study, “Economic scarcity alters the perception of race,” researchers Amy R. Krosch and David M. Amodio used four tests to analyze why racial disparities are exacerbated during economic recessions.

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“Although prior explanations for this phenomenon have focused on institutional causes, our research reveals that perceived scarcity influences people’s visual representations of race in a way that may promote discrimination,” write the researchers. “Across four studies, scarce conditions led perceivers to view Black people as ‘darker’ and ‘more stereotypically Black’ in appearance, relative to control conditions, and this shift in perception under scarcity was sufficient to elicit reduced resource allocations to African-American recipients.”

The “non-black ethnic or racial group” participants in the study were first given questionnaires containing varying levels of “competition between races.” Participants were then shown 110 computer images of faces ranging from predominately white to predominately black, and were asked to label them “black” or “white.”

Participants were also asked to express agreement or disagreement with “zero-sum beliefs” such as, “When blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically.” The participants who concurred with these “zero-sum” statements promoting racial disparity were more likely to consider mixed-face subjects as “blacker.”

The people who filled out the more racially competitive questionnaires were more likely to identify even the lighter faces as darker or more “stereotypically black,” in comparison to those given the control condition questionnaires that didn’t promote economic competition.

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Since the researchers were operating under the statement, “When the economy declines, racial minorities are hit the hardest,” the same test was not reversed to reflect if blacks or other racial minorities expressed similar discriminatory beliefs toward other social groups.

In a separate section of the experiment, the researchers invented a scenario in which the study subjects would be made to feel some type of economic hardship. The participants were flashed a series of words for about 20 milliseconds before the subjects viewed the same computer-generated faces.

Some of the words implied economic competition: “scarce,” “resource,” “sparse,” “limited,” and some were simply negative words unrelated to scarcity at all, such as “odious” and “brutal.”

The results showed that participants were more likely to characterize words for scarcity with darker faces.

“The study’s findings point to a new challenge to discrimination reduction since perceptual effects appear to operate without a person’s awareness,”co-author Amy Krosch, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Psychology, tells the NJ Star-Ledger. “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.”

— Benjamin Fearnow


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