Sunday, July 12, 2020

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Article Index

B. Dehumanization

The stereotypes explored in the previous sections have been used to justify gender-based violence against African American women and girls and devalue them as victims deserving of empathy. In another study, Goff described a related social psychological phenomenon in which people more frequently associate Black people with being animal-like or nonhuman, reducing their worth as human beings deserving of physical and legal protection. Whether or not they are aware, these biases likely operate when administrators and decisionmakers must determine the type of intervention or help to offer Black girls and young women who experience gendered violence at school.

Goff set out to study how historical representations depicting Black people as apelike might affect decision-makers in the criminal justice context. The research suggests that despite the near disappearance of imagery explicitly portraying African Americans as apes, the mental association remains. Although participants claimed to be unfamiliar with such depictions, they still demonstrated an implicit association between the two concepts.

Most notably, the researchers demonstrated how the Black-ape association carries real-life implications for decision makers. They primed participants with images of either apes or felines and then asked them to watch a video of “a group of police officers beating a suspect whom the participants were led to believe was Black or White.” Those participants primed with ape imagery were more likely to condone the beating of a Black suspect than a White one. In their final study, the researchers coded newspaper articles on death-eligible criminal cases for “ape-relevant” language and found that after “controlling for the total number of articles, defendant socioeconomic status, victim socioeconomic status, aggravating circumstances, mitigating circumstances, and crime severity, Black defendants who were put to death were more likely to have apelike representations in the press.”

Goff's dehumanization research demonstrated how implicit association of African Americans with apes “alter[ed] visual perception . . . [and] increase[d] endorsement of violence against Black suspects.” The replication of Goff's laboratory studies in real life for Black male defendants has terrifying implications for the impact media portrayals might have on Black women and girls and their likelihood of experiencing gendered and racial victimization as a product of related biases. In other words, if the media portrays Black women as unworthy victims, it is likely that these lopsided depictions produce behavioral consequences. For example, Goff's findings imply that dehumanizing, racialized perceptions that Black youth share characteristics with animals may lead administrators to justify unnecessary levels of criminal and disciplinary treatment.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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