In the U.S., media often prominently feature Black individuals as dangerous, and there are widespread cultural stereotypes linking Black to concepts like violence, aggression, and criminality. Research that I recently conducted exploring the likely consequences of this pernicious and problematic portrayal of Black people found that White Americans more strongly link Black men compared to White men with "dangerous," and White men compared with Black men with "positivity." Also, White Americans equally link Black and White men with general "negativity" and more strongly link Black (but not White) men with "dangerous" versus "negative."

So, not only do White Americans hold an automatic Black-threat association, but the Black-threat link is distinct from and stronger than a Black-negative link. In fact, in that work, there was no automatic Black-negative link. These results suggest that White people's quick and automatic evaluation of Black men may be that they appear to pose a threat, rather than that they are disliked.

What About Black Americans' Response to Stereotypes?

Yet Black Americans are exposed to many of the same cultural stereotypes as are White Americans. Consequently, like White Americans, Black Americans may come to hold a mental association linking Black to threat. Although it may seem surprising to suggest members of a group can hold negative attitudes toward their own group, research has shown that members of historically disadvantaged and minoritized groups can sometimes show associations that favor the outgroup. For example, on measures of automatic associations of a group with good versus bad, members of marginalized groups tend to favor the outgroup. As examples, elderly people favor the young, people with disabilities favor people without disabilities, and people with obesity favor people with normal weight. And, along these same lines, Black Americans sometimes favor White Americans. Yet, recent research suggests that liking another group does not necessarily imply disliking one's own. In other words, Black people may hold a White-positive association without holding a Black-negative association.

Threat and Negativity Are Not the Same

My work shows that threat associations are primary to negative associations, and this means that Black Americans can hold a Black-threat association even in the absence of a Black-negative association. To be clear, if Black Americans associate threat with Black people, that would not suggest the association is accurate, or that Black Americans, believe, endorse, or are responsible for this association. Nor does it suggest that Black Americans do not also hold a coexisting but weaker White-threat association. Instead, a stronger Black- versus White-threat association may be one consequence of the pernicious presence and influence of the Black-threat stereotype in America. Indeed, my most recent work found that, like White Americans, Black Americans

  • more strongly link Black than White men with "dangerous"
  • equally link Black and White men with general "negativity"
  • more strongly link Black (but not White) men with "dangerous" versus "negative"

These results suggest that cultural stereotypes linking Black Americans to danger-related concepts like violence, aggression, and criminality may lead to a Black-threat association with outgroup but also ingroup members. Finding a unique Black-threat association implies that, even among Black Americans, Black men may evoke an automatic threat process and rapid threat responses aimed at self-defense.

Individuals raised in the same society are likely to internalize some of the same stereotypes, regardless of whether that stereotype is about their group or another group. Considering bias from all angles may help explain why, for example, disproportionate police use of force encounters are not limited to White officers. Instead of revealing implicit disdain or dislike, such occurrences may indicate threat responses that result via the activation of threat associations. Although one might expect Black individuals to be especially motivated to control the effects of bias against their own group, threat-evoking stimuli are extremely impactful, and a person's responses can be hard to control. Consequently, the impact of threat-based anti-Black bias may occur in numerous social domains, including jury decisions, hiring decisions, and school discipline decisions.

Increased understanding of bias in the U.S. can be gained by considering threat-based anti-Black bias to be the result of a societal-level issue that shapes associations. These associations can be held by White people, but also by members of other ethnic and racial groups, indeed even other Black Americans. In doing so, the source of the harmful consequences of such bias may be identified as the result of a systemic societal problem and can begin to be addressed at various levels.

For Further Reading

March, D. S. (2022). Perceiving a danger within: Black Americans associate Black men with physical threat. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

March, D. S., Gaertner, L., & Olson, M. A. (2021). Danger or dislike: Distinguishing threat from valence as sources of automatic anti-Black bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121, 984-1004.

March, D. S., & Gaertner, L. (2021). A method for estimating the time of initiating correct categorization in mouse-tracking. Behavior Research Methods, 53, 2439-2449.

March, D. S., Gaertner, L., & Olson, M. A. (2018). On the prioritized processing of threat in a Dual Implicit Process model of evaluation. Psychological Inquiry, 29, 1-13.

David March is an Assistant Professor at Florida State University and studies how people process information, particularly threatening information, and how the unique processing of threatening information affects judgments and behaviors.