Science & Technology



What's scarier to a New York City cop than a black man? A tall black man

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Being a tall guy is a great big asset -- if you're a tall white guy.

If you're a tall black guy, not so much.

New research finds that the taller the African American man, the more threatening he is perceived to be -- by a majority-white audience, at least.

That finding is at stark variance with a mountain of evidence that we really look up to men of physical stature. Americans tend to see taller men as more competent and intelligent. We're more willing to hire and promote them than we are shorter men, and more likely to elect them to high office. We like them more.

But those feelings largely reflect our perceptions of white men, said Neil Hester, a social psychology graduate student at the University of North Carolina. In about 15 studies that have tested and confirmed our admiration of tall men, virtually all of the people shown to experimental subjects were white guys.

So, along with UNC psychology professor Kurt Gray, Hester tested whether the racial bias that often operates beneath our level of consciousness would change these rules when it comes to evaluating tall black men. Their hypothesis was that it would.

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Hester and Gray explored a trove of existing evidence and set up online experiments in which survey-takers evaluated how much they admired or feared a collection of men who varied in height and skin color.

Their hypothesis was correct, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The new result sheds light on such stunning findings as the one that showed we judge black men -- and scary men -- as taller than they really are.

Our socialized minds have given us cognitive shortcuts that equate "the other" with danger. And our most primitive instincts recognize large size as a sign of a potential adversary's ability to subjugate us.


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