This week provided yet another reminder that no black American is truly safe from racism.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Police Department reportedly responded to a call that someone had spray-painted the n-word on NBA superstar LeBron James’s home.
James later commented on the situation. He said his family was okay, but that there is a broader lesson here. “Racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America,” he said. “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough.”
It’s not too difficult to think of examples beyond James’s case to back his point. Just eight years ago, Barack Obama became the president of the United States — only to face questions about whether he’s American and was born in the US. Then, last year, one of the top proponents of the baseless birther conspiracy theory, Donald Trump, was rewarded by the American people with the presidency. (Several studies have found that both birtherism and Trump’s election were closely tied to racist beliefs.)
Think about how this works. Obama achieved literally the height of his — and arguably any — career: He became the president of the most powerful nation in the world. Yet his American citizenship was still questioned. And those questions were so widely accepted or at least able to be overlooked by US voters that the person who replaced Obama is one of the people most vocally challenging Obama’s status as an American.
It goes far beyond James and Obama. Study after study show that facing racist acts and sentiments is simply a part of life as a black American.
Studies find persistent signs of racism in the US
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 with a history 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, an 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.
Another study found 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.
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the 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.”
This is just a small sampling of the research. But no matter how these kinds of studies are conducted, there’s a clear bias going on: Many Americans tend to associate black people with criminal behavior, violence, and other negative qualities.
These biases can seriously impact people’s lives
As James’s recent experience shows, these kinds of biases can ultimately impact people’s lives.
They affect job prospects. In one study, researchers sent out almost entirely identical résumés — except some had stereotypically white names and others had stereotypically black names. The white names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for interviews.
They affect income. A 2015 analysis by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, found that black Americans with advanced degrees make roughly the same as white Americans with only bachelor’s degrees.
They affect policing. Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.
Some of these disparities are explained by socioeconomic factors — such as poverty, unemployment, segregation, and neglect by the police when it comes to serious crimes — that lead to more crime and violence in black communities. As a result, police tend to be more present in black neighborhoods — and therefore may be more likely to take policing actions, from traffic stops to arrests to shootings, in these areas.
But these structural disparities don’t appear to explain everything. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests that perhaps other factors are involved in the disparities seen for these shootings, including racial bias.
These are the kinds of facts that LeBron James was referring to when he remarked on the reality of being black in America: No matter how far anyone goes, racism seems to be there.