Researchers Find Perception is a Strong Basis for Racial Disparity


Researchers Find Perception is a Strong Basis for Racial Disparity

A new study conducted by New York University psychology researchers examines the role perception plays in increased racial discrimination during economically challenging times.  The study finds that when economic resources become scarce, people’s views of each other become distorted, which ultimately encourages disparate treatment.  This poses a challenge for efforts to reduce racial disparity because generally people are not fully aware of their perceptions.  People typically believe their perceptions are accurate representations of reality, so naturally realizing a need to adjust their perceptions is difficult to do.

 The researchers find that people’s perceptions of racial implications change with a shift in personal social goals and motivations. To explore this theory further, researchers studied the perceptions of non-Black male and females in an experiment. First, the participants completed a survey regarding their views of economic competition between Whites and Blacks.  Then, they looked at pictures of people, some of whose racial backgrounds were largely white or black, and some of whom were of a more mixed racial background.  The participants were asked to identify the people in the photos as being either White or Black.  The results of the test were that those who believed there was a greater racial economic tension were more reluctant to classify the people in the photos as White; whereas, those who believed racial economic tensions were not significant were more apt to categorize the people in the photos as being White.

 In a variation on this same test, researchers flashed subliminal messages to the participants before showing them images of the people that they were to categorize. In this test, even when shown photos of mixed race people who had a higher percentage of Black in their background, participants labeled the people in the pictures as White more often when shown positive subliminal messages before seeing the photos.  Conversely, participants labeled the people in the photos as Black more often when negative subliminal messages were shown before they viewed the photos, even though many of those photos were of people whose backgrounds were significantly less Black.

 The experiment was repeated with other variations. In each instance, the researchers found that perceived biases played a part in the link between economic scarcity and increased discrimination, which ultimately lead to racial disparities.


Patrice Garnette, Joint Center Graduate Scholar, The George Washington University Law School

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