Sunday, February 22, 2009
Phillip Atiba Goff is an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology, where he conducts research on racial attitudes and beliefs. When he recently published the results of a five-year study of common psychological associations between black people and primates, his anxiety about the anticipated response was deeply personal.
"When I first analyzed the data, I spent two days under the covers," Goff said. "I was sick and depressed. When I left my apartment, I felt everyone looking at me would see a monkey."
For those who like to praise America for making great strides toward racial equality, Goff's findings should have sobering implications. Perhaps the most fundamental one is that a long history of white supremacist assumptions that black people are related to apes and monkeys is not just history. Instead, as Goff has demonstrated, those racist associations remain embedded within the minds of most white people, affecting their opinions and their behavior.
Goff's work may also help to explain the motives, conscious or not, of Sean Delonas, the cartoonist who created the dead-monkey image that's provoked so much discussion and outrage this week (you can see the cartoon here). Goff's research results demonstrate that such images are not only offensive and repugnant, because they dredge up age-old associations between black people and primates. They're also flat-out dangerous, because those associations are still active within the recesses of most white minds.
In a series of six different studies, Goff and his fellow researchers subjected hundreds of participants to an array of image- and word-association tests. In an overview of the series, Tom Jacobs writes that in Goff's first study,
The participants were "primed" with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.
The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.
The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.
"The effects were quite large -- distressingly large," Goff said. "There was a decent amount of variance, but there weren't a whole lot of folks that didn't demonstrate the effect.
"The difference between when the black face was primed and when the white face was primed was about six frames, which was about three full seconds. In cognitive terms, where you're staring at a screen you're just a few inches from and trying to tell what an object is, three seconds is a profound difference!"
Because the results from each of Goff's six studies show that racist connections between black people and primates are anything but a thing of the past, they have deep and immediate social implications. Goff's work helps to illuminate the pervasive undercurrents of white condescension, suspicion, and fear that black people routinely encounter in non-black environments.
For instance, another of Goff's studies suggests that ongoing associations between blacks and primates tend to make whites more approving of police abuse, if the victims are black instead of white.
In that project, white male students were initially briefed with words commonly associated with either apes or large cats. They then watched a video of a policeman beating a man:
Half were told the man (whose image was unclear on the film) was white; the other half were told he was black.
The students who were primed with cat words considered the beating unjustified. So did those who were primed with ape words but were told the victim was white. But those who were primed with the ape words and told the victim was black were far more ambivalent in their reaction.
"The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified," Goff said.
In the sixth and final study of his series, Goff's results also help to explain why the residents of death row are so disproportionately black. Goff analyzed newspaper reports of trials in which both black and non-black defendants were eligible for the death penalty. He found that descriptions of the trials for black defendants included far more primate-related language, such as "ape," "beast," "brute," or "jungle":
"It turned out African Americans had significantly more ape-related images ascribed to them than did whites. And among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death."
Goff is not claiming a causal relationship between the stories and the death sentences; juries, he noted, are routinely ordered not to read press accounts of their cases. Rather, he concluded, "the representation of African Americans as apelike is so present in the cultural ether that both the press and the juries were drawn toward it."
With, in some cases, lethal results.
If some part of a white person's mind has been trained to continually and habitually connect black people with primates, how likely is it that a white manager will treat a black job applicant fairly? How likely is it that a white police officer will treat a black suspect with an appropriate amount of respect and restraint, if some part of the officer's mind is associating that person with an ape? And isn't it likely that such subconscious associations also prevent many white teachers from crediting their black students with the same intellectual capacities as other students?
So no matter what the editors of the New York Post claim in their thoroughly unapologetic apology, a cartoon that ties together a bloody, assassinated monkey and a bill that was signed by a black president is not only racist. It's also dangerous, because as Phillip Atiba Goff's profoundly revealing work demonstrates, such images reach into the depths of white minds and reinforce the common, demeaning, and dehumanizing imagery that's already there. That's why I can't see Sean Delonas' cartoon, nor the Post's non-apology, as anything other than illustrations of a smug and vile type of irresponsibility.
And for any young white folks who think that racist ideas of black people as ape-like are mere relics of a forgettable history--Goff found that such images also exist in the minds of people who don't know anything about that history:
Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious. (For one of the studies, the participants were specifically asked whether they were aware of the stereotype of blacks as apelike. Only 9 percent answered affirmatively.)
As the many clueless defenses of the Post cartoon demonstrate, Phillip Atiba Goff's valuable work deserves wider recognition. His results thoroughly demonstrate the tenacity of the associations that most of us still make between black people and primates. For white people, his work suggests that unless we work to understand that which is buried--and yet lives--deep within ourselves, we're likely at some point to enact dangerous and even lethal racist tendencies. No matter how much we might like to praise ourselves and our country for moving beyond racism.
[h/t to Kit, who alerted me to Goff's work in a post at the new Afropeace Forum. Phillip Atiba Goff's written reaction to the Post cartoon can be found here. I also recommend this excellent set of tips for cartoonists, via Ampersand.]