Can reading a name lead to a racist reaction? A new study from researchers at the University of California Los Angeles suggests that yes, it can. According to the findings, people tend to associate what the authors call "black-sounding names," like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do "white-sounding names," like Connor and Garrett.
In a series of studies involving more than 1,500 people, the researchers found that respondents held an unknown white man convicted of assault — an actual violent crime — and an unknown black man in equal regard in terms of size, a potential sign of perceived danger and aggression.
In one of the studies, researchers tested people who self-identified as "slightly left of center politically," asking them to read about different scenarios in which a man acted out violently, only with certain details changed. Sometimes they gave the character a criminal history, a successful business record, or a neutral background in which they offered no details about his history. And they changed the character's name to sound like it belonged to different ethnic groups — white, black, Hispanic, and Asian.
When people were given the character's specific background (like a business record), they didn't associate stereotypically black and white names with different traits, based on their stated perceptions of the character's height, build, aggressiveness, and other factors.
But in neutral scenarios, people linked the black-sounding names (Jamal, DeShawn, or Darnell) with aggression, while the white-sounding names (Connor, Wyatt, or Garrett) received more leniency.
The studies found similar results for Hispanic men, who were also perceived as larger and more aggressive than their Asian counterparts.
"I've never been so disgusted by my own data," Colin Holbrook, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name."
What's worse, this isn't even the first study to find these kind of results. Time and time again, researchers looking into subconscious prejudices — also known as "implicit bias" — have found evidence of Americans discriminating against black people.
Police and the public often dehumanize black men
As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.
In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.
"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."
Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work, as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.
Subconscious racial biases are worrying because they may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
It's this type of racial bias that has been at the center of debates over racial disparities in police use of force over the past year. When cops used force on Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, the question for many critics of police was how subconscious biases factored into the deadly encounters. For instance, Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown, described the black 18-year-old to a grand jury as a demon-like, dead-eyed giant who charged at him through a hail of gunfire — a callback to old racist tropes of "giant negroes" attacking police and innocent people.
So people may not think of themselves as racist, but the evidence suggests implicit bias may drive them to act in racist ways — even when all they're doing is reading a name.