A Bad Economy Can Make People More Racist

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A new study has found that economic scarcity makes people more likely to see African-Americans as “blacker” and more stereotypical. This perception, according to New York University researchers Amy Krosch and David Amodio, leads people to hold back resources from the those perceived as darker.

Krosch and Amodio conducted four different tests to come to this conclusion. In the first, subjects completed a questionnaire about economic competition for limited resources between black and white Americans and then viewed a series of faces that ranged from completely stereotypically white to completely stereotypically black, with more mixed-race features in between. Those who had stronger beliefs about conflicts with zero source resources between races saw the mixed-face faces as “blacker” than the faces actually rated on an objective scale.

The next experiment had subjects go through the same facial race identifying task while words were presented quickly before they viewed each one. The words either represented scarcity — for example, the word “scarcity” itself — or were negative in another way (for example, “brutal) or simply neutral (“fluffy”). Those who saw the scarcity words saw mixed-race faces as significantly blacker than those who saw the other negative words or the neutral ones. In fact, the negative words unrelated to race had no impact compared to neutral ones. “These results demonstrated that scarcity, but not general negativity, shifted subjects’ perceptual threshold for race,” the researchers write.

The third experiment gave subjects $10 to allocate to someone else, but under different conditions: some were told they were given $10 out of a possible $100, while others were told the maximum was $10. Those who were in the scarce conditions saw faces as darker and more stereotypically black than those who felt they had the largest possible pot.

“These results demonstrated that, compared with a control condition, perceived scarcity elicited internal mental representations of Black people as ‘Blacker’–a distortion that, given past research, should facilitate discrimination,” the researchers write.

And in a final test, they found that was the case. Subjects were asked how they would divide $15 between a darker and a more neutral mixed-race face. They found that subjects gave significantly less money to the darker face, even though “most subjects attempted to be egalitarian,” they note. “[T]his pattern revealed a causal process whereby scarcity led subjects to view Black faces as ‘Blacker,’ which in turn led to a disparity in money allocation,” they conclude.

All of the results, of course, were conducted in lab conditions, not observed in the real world. But the results are troubling. The researchers note that past research has found that “discrimination against African Americans is magnified for those viewed as more prototypically ‘Black’ (i.e., as having darker skin tone and more Afrocentric features).” That means “they are more likely to be socially excluded, shot when unarmed in a police training task, and sentenced to death after a guilty verdict.” Their experiments show that this discrimination can be brought about by tight economic circumstances. Their results present evidence that “economic scarcity enhances discrimination and contributes to racial disparities,” which may “contribute to the widening of racial disparities during economic distress.”

This may contribute to the fact that the recession has taken a much harder toll on the black community than the white one. While the unemployment rate has been falling, the black rate still remains double the white one. Far more black workers are underemployed — either jobless and seeking work, want work but have given up the search, or working part time but wanting to be full time — than white workers. Even black college graduates have been experiencing particularly high unemployment and underemployment rates. Of those who have jobs, fewer of them work in top occupations or positions since the recession.

The researchers also note that the recession was a major blow to African American wealth but less of one for white people: median household wealth fell by 53 percent for black households and just 16 percent for white ones. The wealth gap between whites and blacks nearly doubled during the recession, and white families went from being about four times as wealthy as nonwhite ones before it hit to six times as wealthy after the crisis.