In a politically correct world, we’re supposed to pretend that we don’t notice differences between people. But in our effort to make everyone feel good about how racially-sensitive they are toward others, we delude ourselves in thinking that race doesn’t matter any more. Sadly, the research suggests otherwise. There continues to exist significant racial disparities in our country, disparities that directly impact millions of people’s lives every day. Cardiologists underestimate the racial disparity in their own care and blacks regularly receive worse quality health care when compared to whites.
Pager et al. (2009) wanted to see if individuals of different races who had the same fictitious resumes would be treated equally when they applied for real, entry-level, low-wage positions throughout New York City. The researchers trained teams of participants — each of which included a white, black and Latino — to act and dress in a similar manner during the interview process. The participants were “chosen on the basis of their verbal skills, interactional styles (level of eye-contact, demeanor, and verbosity), and physical attractiveness.”
Across the board, the whites of the teams were offered jobs more often than either blacks or Latinos. Many times the white candidates were also channeled to better positions than the one that the employer advertised. Blacks and Latinos, on the other hand, were only half as likely to be offered a job compared to whites. And when they were offered a job, it was often a lower-paying, inferior position than the position advertised.
And here’s the real kicker — employers chose a white applicant who was just released from prison just as often as they chose a black or Latino applicant with a clean background. In many employers’ minds, a white criminal is on equal footing with non-criminal blacks and Latinos. Amazing.
It’s interesting that the researchers studied whether criminality had any effect on a person’s perceptions of suitability for a job, because when it comes to race and crime, it gets even worse.
In many crimes, the strongest and most convincing evidence is often that of an eyewitness to the crime. So it seems reasonable to ask — are eyewitness accounts reasonably accurate? I won’t delve into the research that examines this broader question, but instead I want to focus on just one component of this question — Can a white eye witness reliably and correctly identify faces of a different racial makeup than their own? Eyewitness accounts are the primary evidence used by prosecutors, jurors often regard eyewitness testimony as the most useful evidence in a trial, and eye-witness accounts are the most sought-after form of evidence during the criminal investigation.
Horry & Wright (2008) studied this question and came to the conclusion that, consistent with previous research, participants were almost twice as likely to misidentify a black face in the study compared to a white face:
Participants could remember the context for White targets better than they could for Black targets. This is an important finding. It is the first demonstration that White people are better at remembering the context in which they saw White faces. This suggests that people are less likely to remember the circumstances in which they encountered an individual of a different race. Research into bystander misidentification and mugshot exposure has shown that people can and do make mistakes concerning the context in which a face has been encountered. This study shows that these transference errors may be more likely in cross-race identifications.
Ouch. That means that when it comes to eye-witness identification, whites are twice as likely to mis-identify a black person than a white person. Obviously, this sort of high error rate has significant ramifications for trials and the use of eye-witness accounts. With lower accuracy comes a higher likelihood of error and identifying someone as the perpetrator of a crime when, in fact, they were not.
As the researchers noted, context is especially important. “When making an identification, witnesses must not only remember whether they have ever seen a specific individual, but also in what circumstance they encountered that individual.” Just because you recognize a face doesn’t mean you saw that face committing a crime (you could’ve seen them earlier in the day on the bus, or bumped into them on the way out of a bank).
Psychology researchers have been studying this phenomenon for years. They call it “cross face recognition” and term the bias we have toward correctly recognizing and identifying faces of our own race as “own-race bias (ORB).” This finding is fairly robust and has been replicated time and time again, across several races and in a wide variety of experimental settings.
As we can see from these two studies, we have a long way to go when it comes to racial equality in America. And not just in America, but also in the virtual worlds we create. We treat different races differently, and discrimination still exists. It affects our children in significant ways. Even when it comes to identifying a face in a crime — something that seems so straightforward and simple — it appears our ability to do so reliably is significantly compromised if that face a different race than our own.
Horry, R. & Wright, D.B. (2008). I know your face but not where I saw you: Context memory is impaired for other race faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(3), 610-614.
Pager, D., Western, B., & Bonikowski, B. (2009). Discrimination in a low-wage labor marketing: A field experiment. American Sociological Review, 74(5).