Police dogs attack a young civil rights protester in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. AP Images

New research finds that seeing certain racial groups as less human isn’t a thing of the past.

With each new story that surfaces about violence against black men, women, and children, the idea of post-racial America is buried a bit deeper. In one recent gut-wrenching video, police officers in San Francisco surround a homeless man with a prosthetic leg. At one point, four of them pin him down despite his cries of protest.

Here’s what Chaédria LaBouvier, a journalist who filmed this incident, wrote on Medium:

These incidents are so quotidian, so mundane, that they do not merit a mention in even passing on the local news. Which is to say, this is everyday harassment. Which is to say, that we’ve normalized and habitualized the kind of policing in San Francisco and the rest of America that brutalizes the most vulnerable people, which strips them of their human dignity, the agency to their bodies — to walk with crutches when physically disabled, to have this body unviolated — when in actuality, they are whom the police are especially supposed to be protecting.

LaBouvier’s point that vulnerable groups are often stripped of their humanity is supported by a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study finds that some groups in America are considered less human than others, and that people who regard these groups as such are not shy to express their sentiments or behave in accordance with them.  

"In addition to the more subtle forms of prejudice and dehumanization that are out there, that are also important, some groups are still facing these more blatant forms, and they seem to be pretty insidious," says Nour Sami Kteily, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University and one of the study authors.

The concept of dehumanization—considering another person less human than you, and therefore, less deserving of humane treatment—is an ancient one. It’s been used to explain and justify aggressive actions of one group towards another throughout history. In Nazi Germany, propaganda posters and movies represented Jews as rats. Many who opposed abolition of slavery compared African Americans to apes.

For the last few decades, researchers have veered towards measuring more subtle, indirect forms of dehumanization—assuming most people would no longer openly reveal that they believe someone else to be less than human. In 2006, psychologist Susan Fiske examined how people’s brains reacted to images of addicts and homeless people. She found strong neural signs of disgust, supporting the theory that “extreme out-groups may be perceived as less than human, or dehumanized.”

For the new study, Kteily and his colleagues wanted to question the assumption that dehumanization only occurs as silent, subtle perceptions. They designed a measure for blatant dehumanization called “ascent dehumanization,” based on the famous depiction of humans evolving from primitive to advanced beings, over time. Although they conducted seven studies on data samples from three countries, we’re going to stick to what they found in America.

Here are the highlights:

Less privileged groups are dehumanized more than others

In one study, the researchers surveyed a mostly white, liberal-leaning sample of Americans to find out which groups of respondents (if any) blatantly dehumanized other U.S. racial groups. The questions were designed in a way that the respondents were likely to be conscious that they were attributing less humanity to certain groups. The respondents were shown the “ascent of man” silhouettes (below) and asked to point to where they saw various ethnic groups on that scale from lower animals to highly evolved humans:

The respondents rated European groups and Japanese as “similarly evolved” as themselves. But Chinese, South Koreans, and Mexican immigrants were rated as being at a lower rung of humanity. Arabs and Muslims were perceived as being the least evolved compared with Americans. (The researchers didn’t measure dehumanization against African Americans in this part of the study series, but other parts confirmed that they were one of the dehumanized groups.)

Here’s how the paper describes its findings:  

These results suggest that the Ascent dehumanization measure may be especially useful for assessing blatant dehumanization toward low status or derogated targets, who may be perceived as relatively primitive or unsophisticated.

Dehumanization can help predict attitudes and behaviors

In successive studies, researchers found that dehumanization was strongly associated with social dominance orientation—the belief that that some groups should maintain superiority over others. They also found that dehumanization was a strong predictor of certain behavioral outcomes.

Dehumanization of Arabs, for example, was linked to more tolerance for military violence in Arab nations. For African Americans, dehumanization predicted that respondents would have less sympathy when encountered with incidents of injustice and wrongful incarceration. For Hispanic Americans, it meant less support for immigration.

Here’s how the researchers summarize this section of the study:

The effects of blatant dehumanization on responses to media portrayals in the African American condition, aversive racism in the Hispanic American condition, and outgroup donation in the Chinese condition remained significant even after controlling for prejudice toward these groups.

(The researchers controlled for prejudice to show that it wasn’t just a strong dislike for these racial groups that was responsible for these behavioral outcomes—it was, as far as they can tell, dehumanization.)

Dehumanization increases with increased threat perception

In another study, the researchers examined how dehumanization changes over time. They compared survey data before and after the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. Dehumanization of Arabs spiked in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, and then started subsiding in a couple of months.

"When people feel like their group is coming under attack from another group … it may increase the blatant levels of dehumanization," Kteily says.

It’s frightening to think about how fears and perceptions of threat can be manipulated to justify ill-treatment and violence against certain people. Nearly 14 years after 9/11, anti-Muslim violence is still common. And the recent stream of dehumanizing rhetoric against immigrants has already also had violent ramifications.

"[Politicians] are playing to an audience,” Kteily says. “They recognize that the perception, or this type of rhetoric, has supporters.” Adding fuel to the fire is likely to exacerbate the existing perceptions o these groups, and worsen the potential ramifications, he says.

In the future, it would be interesting to see how the so-called “lower-status” groups—the ones that the study finds are targets of dehumanization—perceive those that are regarded as being higher up in the social hierarchy, Kteily says. For now, it’s important to acknowledge that dehumanization is more common than previously thought. “[The study] highlights a deep issue here that needs to be addressed from the point of social harmony,” he says.

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