NYU Study Reveals Which Face White People Would Give to During a Recession


The news: Times are hard, resources are scarce and you're broke.

Now, imagine you've been given a limited amount of money to distribute among a small group of people. This is what the people look like:

Image Credit: PNAS

How do you split up the funds?

This is a question at the center of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Amy R. Krosch and David M. Amodio of New York University set out to determine whether connections exist between economic scarcity and how individuals perceive race. The results form a grim but unsurprising conclusion:

The link is real. And it's bad news for black people.

The background: It's no secret that periods of economic hardship are especially tough for racial minorities.

For instance, the study cites how median household wealth among white Americans dropped by 16% between 2007 and 2009. For black Americans, that figure was a staggering 53%, highlighting not only the recession's disproportionate impact but the overall tenuousness of black wealth.

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

A similar pattern was found in unemployment rates among recent college graduates. While the overall rate stands at 5.6%, the rate for black grads is 12.4% — a figure that's nearly tripled since 2007.

Image Credit: Center for Economic and Policy Research

These dips have been rightly attributed to long-standing structural and systemic inequalities. But the study suggests they might also be compounded by patterns of individual perception, prompted by resource availability and its relationship to race.

What the scientists found: The study consisted of multiple parts.

In one of them, 70 subjects — mostly white, none black — were asked to either agree or disagree with a series of "zero-sum" statements about the distribution of resources among black and white Americans. Examples included: "When blacks make economic gains, whites lose out automatically," and "More good jobs for blacks means fewer good jobs for whites."

The subjects were then shown a randomized series of 110 faces. The faces were constructed along a graded scale according to phenotype, from "100% white" to "100% black." Subjects were then asked to respond to each face as quickly as possible, categorizing it as either "white" or "black."

The scientists found that subjects who agreed with the "zero-sum" statements — indicating that blacks and whites were in an economic rivalry — were more likely to see racially ambiguous faces as "blacker."

Part two took it a step further: A different group of subjects was shown a series of similarly graded black, white and mixed faces — only this time with more pronounced differences between each. But before being shown a face, the subjects were exposed to a 20 millisecond "word primer" representing either "scarcity (e.g., scarce), neutral concepts (e.g., fluffy), or negative concepts unrelated to scarcity (e.g., brutal)."

On average, subjects who were exposed to the scarcity-related primers were more likely to categorize mixed-looking faces as "blacker" than those exposed to either neutral or negative primers.

Finally: The most telling moment came when another group of 59 subjects were given $15 and asked to distribute it between two images — one of a black face, one of a white face.

All the subjects were white. On average, they gave 70 cents less to the black face.

Damn: These findings suggest a troubling pattern in how people think during times of economic drought. While feelings of competition are to be expected, their tendency to play out along racial lines highlights a sad inclination to materially enforce racial difference — especially when there are clear financial benefits.

Aside from showing how racism maintains white supremacy on an economic level, this exacerbates the systemic inequalities that have plagued black people for hundreds of years in this country.

And it's not getting much better. Welcome to "post-racial" America.