When People Are Stressed Financially, Their Racial Biases Escalate

White study participants view biracial faces as “more black” when times are tough

Photo: Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Corbis

Millions of people were affected by the recession, and many are still feeling its impacts. But as the Atlantic points out, some people might have unfairly suffered more—and could still be suffering—solely because of the color of their skin. According to a new study, people's racist biases might be amplified during times of economic hardship. 

Researchers asked 70 mostly white participants to fill out a survey measuring pre-existing racial biases surrounding money. The participants ranked statements such as  “When blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically,” the Atlantic explains. Then, the participants were shown a photo line-up of faces, on a gradient of changing skin tone—the pictures were created by fusing a white person and a black person's features. The study participants had to say who on the line-up was white and who was black. The more a participant saw black people as his competition for jobs and money, the more likely he or she was to rank any face with a slight dark complexion as "black," the Atlantic reports. A second experiment focused on economic scaricty, and a third asked participants to divide up limited resources between two people, one lighter skinned than the other.

The team thinks their results indicate that people's racial biases were likely heightened during the recession:

“This would play out in one-on-one situations – like when someone is applying for a bank loan, or dealing with their mortgages, or interviewing for a job,” [psychology professor David] Amodio said. “These are all situations where the mindset of the person in power could affect how they're seeing this person and forming impressions of this person.” 

This sort of amplified bias could help explain why some groups of people have suffered more during the recession than others, as a study last year showed. The Huffington Post:

The average white family was six times wealthier in 2010 than the average black or Hispanic family, according to a study from the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research organization. That’s up from 1983, when the average white family was five-times as wealthy as the average black or Hispanic family. ... When considering wealth, a measurement that includes both income and assets, black and Hispanic households appear at an even greater disadvantage since the recession in the event of an unexpected job loss, medical emergency, or other financial disaster.

But there were plenty of racially driven structrual biases that existed pre-recession, too—people of color were more likely to be shunted into subprime mortgages, for instance.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.