The comedian Roseanne Barr resurrected one of the oldest and most profoundly racist slanders in American history when she referred to Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman who served as an adviser to President Barack Obama, as the offspring of an ape.
This depiction — promoted by slave traders, historians and practitioners of “scientific” racism — was used to justify slavery, lynching and the creation of the Jim Crow state. It made the leap to the silver screen in deeply noxious films like “The Birth of a Nation” and haunted American popular culture well into the 20th century.
The toxically racist ape characterization has been pushed to the margins of the public square. Nevertheless, a growing body of research shows that it has maintained a pernicious grip on the American imagination. It is especially problematic in the criminal justice system, where subhuman treatment of African-Americans remains strikingly visible.
That message comes through powerfully in research by several social scientists, but particularly in the work of the Stanford University psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt and Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College in New York. In six studies published with collaborators a decade ago, Mr. Goff and Ms. Eberhardt found that even younger study participants who were born since the civil rights revolution and claimed to know nothing of the ape caricature of blackness were swayed by it when making judgments about black people. In one study, white male undergraduates who were subliminally exposed to words associated with apes — for example, “chimp” or “gorilla” — were more likely to condone the beating of those in police custody when they thought that the suspect was black.
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