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The Science Of Racial Bias

In a groundbreaking study, a Tufts professor found that both black and white populations stereotype blacks based on their skin tone.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.01.02] Highly controversial in nature, racial bias has been a topic of research largely avoided by the scientific community. But a groundbreaking study by a Tufts professor is shedding new light on the subject, finding -- for the first time -- that both black and white populations stereotype blacks based on their skin tone.

"Recently, [Tufts' Keith] Maddox, and African-American himself, published the results of a set of experiments that showed for the first time that both blacks and whites unconsciously categorize blacks by their skin tine, and that both blacks and whites are well aware of the stereotype that paints dark-skinned blacks as inferior," reported The Boston Globe.

Prior research had only focused on general cultural stereotypes about blacks, said the assistant professor of psychology at Tufts.

"When he was a graduate student, [Maddox] noted that researchers focused on how races see other races as homogenous, and tended not to focus on ways people of the same race are different," reported the Associated Press.

While many scientists believed skin-tone bias was a taboo topic for research, Maddox decided to design a series of experiments to explore the issue.

"[Maddox's] work is unusual, other researchers said, not just for its bravery, but because he is using a basic experimental approach, in some ways quite ingenious, that hasn't been brought to this question before," reported the Globe.

Maddox -- who also heads Tufts' Social Cognition Lab -- recruited 150 white and black college-aged students from around Boston for the research.

"In the first part of the study, subjects were shown pictures of light- and dark-skinned blacks, along with neutral statements," reported the Associated Press. "The subjects were then asked to match the faces and the statements. Researchers wanted to see if the subjects characterized the pictures and statements by skin tone."

In the second part of the study, the subjects were asked to list the traits they believed to be commonly associated with light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks.

The Tufts professor's findings -- which have received national attention -- offered some of the first scientific evidence about how racial stereotypes operate in society.

"The study found light skinned blacks were more likely to be described as intelligent, attractive or wealthy, while dark-skinned blacks were more apt to be described as poor, criminal or tough/aggressive," reported the Associated Press.

Maddox's experiment was carefully designed to focus on skin tones, resulting in scientific evidence that showed "racial bias and prejudice are related to the lightness or darkness of a black person's skin, rather than other features such as hair texture, lip fullness or nose width," reported the Boston Herald.

As a result, Maddox and his Tufts colleague Stephanie Gray noted in their findings "that the effects of skin tone are not only historical curiosities from a legacy of slavery and racism, but present-day mechanisms that influence who gets what in America."

The research -- funded by that National Institutes of Health -- is an important step in understanding and addressing racial bias, Maddox told the Globe.

"It is something that in the past has been thought of as divisive and explosive and something we shouldn't ever talk about in public," he told the newspaper. "But if you don't try to understand it, then things will never get better."

Maddox hopes his research will help.

"The goal, Maddox said, is to develop a clear picture of how racial stereotypes operate," reported the Globe. "That way, he said, we should all feel more comfortable talking about them -- and, by talking about them, eventually getting beyond them."

It's a process that has taken a long time already.

"We've come a long way since the 1950s in terms of acknowledging racial inequality, but skin tone bias represents a lingering and influential remnant of history," he told the Herald.

Keith Maddox's color photo courtesy The Boston Globe.

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