Why Race Matters: Blackness in a White Society


DollsIn 2006, a teenage girl named Kiri Davis came to Reel Works with an idea of exploring how the impact of slavery and racism can be seen within black culture today. She and her mentor recreated the famous “doll test” by asking 21 preschoolers to choose between a black and a white doll. The majority of children associated more positive traits with the white doll and more negative traits with the black doll. This was even true for the children who admitted they looked more like the black doll. They discovered that 15 out of 21 black children still preferred the white doll over the black doll. Even children know that race matters. Check out Davis’ final video:

Influence of race, culture and ethnicity permeate every aspect of society from which doll a child wants to play with to which candidate a company hires. These racial biases stem from a history of prejudice and injustice that has yet to be eradicated from modern society.

One glaring example of these biases is the influence of race on criminal justice. Statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center indicate that while the race of defendants executed in murder trials since 1976 was 34% black and 56% white, the race of the victims was 15% black and 77% white which indicates that execution of the defendant is more likely if the victim was white. In executions for interracial murders, only 20 involved a white defendant and a black victim compared to 269 with a black defendant and a white victim.

While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Individuals of color have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem. Students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers: Black and Hispanic students represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement. No wonder kids think being black is bad.Job

Though laws have been put in place to prevent discrimination in the hiring process, unjust practices still persist whether employers do so consciously or subconsciously. Because of the aforementioned statistics about the impact of race on criminal justice, companies who use background checks may disproportionately exclude more black applicants than applicants of other races. For example, Dollar General conditioned all of its job offers on criminal background checks, and Pepsi held a policy of not hiring workers with arrest records which allegedly disproportionately excluded more than 300 black applicants.

While these are just a few examples of systematic discrimination, employers do not always need to rely on systems or policies for racial discrimination to occur in the hiring process. Studies like one done by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan in 2004 titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” have shown that employers can discriminate on the basis of a candidate’s name. The study revealed that candidates with more “white”-sounding names were more likely to receive callbacks for interviews than candidates with “African American”-sounding names that had similar credentials.

If these tangible disadvantages are not enough, African American people face negative stereotypes that impact how they are perceived by society. In fact, a study done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) that tracks subjects over time showed that if someone became unemployed, went to prison, or got on welfare, the interviewer was more likely to see the person as black. This was true on the individual level as well. When people went to prison, they became more likely to self-identify as black.

This and other studies show that race is both physically and socially constructed and that not only do our perceptions of race drive our stereotypes, but our stereotypes drive our perceptions of race as well. Regardless of your true identity and character, appearing to be black or self-identifying as black will make you qualified to have these stereotypes associated with who you are. Because of these preconceived notions about what black people are like, just being black can put you at a disadvantage in some contexts.

This evidence shows that although we try to convince ourselves we live in a “post-racial society” and that we are “colorblind” these norms are so deeply engrained in our society and culture that they still remain despite our denial. And until we each make our own conscious effort to eliminate these biases we have about race, this glaring issue will remain a dark stain on the white blouse of American society.


Valeta Brown is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be contacted at valetabrown@wustl.edu

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