White Americans are fine with African-Americans. Blacks, however, are a different story.
That’s the disturbing implication of a new study, which finds the way a person of color is labeled can impact how he or she is perceived.
In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a research team led by Emory University’s Erika Hall argues that “the racial label ‘black’ evokes a mental representation of a person with lower socioeconomic status than the racial label ‘African-American.’”
“The content embedded in the black stereotype is generally more negative, and less warm and competent, than that in the African-American stereotype,” the researchers write. “These different associations carry consequences for how whites perceive Americans of African descent who are labeled with either term.”
Hall and her colleagues demonstrate this phenomenon, and its implications, in a series of experiments. In the first, 106 white Americans were given a list of 75 traits such as “athletic,” “aggressive,” and “bold,” and asked to choose the 10 they felt were most descriptive of a specific group of people they were randomly assigned to evaluate. One-quarter of them selected the best traits for blacks, while others did the same for Africans-Americans, whites, and Caucasians.
“The stereotype content for blacks was significantly more negative than for African-Americans,” the researchers write. “In contrast, the stereotype content for African-Americans did not significantly differ in perceived negativity from that of whites.”
In the second experiment, 110 whites were randomly assigned to view, and complete, a profile of a male Chicago resident who was identified as either black or African-American. They estimated the black person’s income and education level to be lower than that of the African-American’s, and were far more likely to think of the African-American as being in a managerial position at his workplace.
In another experiment, 90 whites “expressed more negative emotions” toward a 29-year-old crime suspect when he was identified as black rather than African-American. The results suggest “the label black elicits more negative emotions than the label African-American,” the researchers write, “but African-American does not elicit positive emotion.”
Hall and her colleagues note that their findings have strong implications for the criminal justice system. “The choice of racial labels used in courtroom proceedings could affect how jurors interpret the facts of a case and make judicial decisions,” they write. “Black defendants may be more easily convicted in a court of law than African-American defendants.”
In addition, their results help explain a persistent puzzle: How racial stereotyping and prejudice manage to hold on even in an era where so many highly esteemed Americans—including the president—are of African descent. If such exceptional people are seen as “African-American” as opposed to “black,” it’s easy to hold onto one’s negative assumptions about the latter group.
It all suggests racial labels that are often used interchangeably conjure up very different images, and convey very different implications.