The Truth About How We See Black and White Men Who Are Literally the Same Size

March 16th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

Many high-profile cases of police shootings in the United States have a common thread: the law enforcement officers said the dead black males — some not yet teenagers — were physically threatening. New research on unconscious racial bias could explain why: white cops could be perceiving them as bigger and more mature than they actually are.

A policewoman.

In testimony on his shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson said he felt like he was scuffling with "Hulk Hogan."

“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” he reportedly testified. “Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm” (Wilson is 6 feet 4 inches tall and Brown was 6 feet 5 inches tall).

The officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice also said the child looked large for his age. 

FILE - In a Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 file photo, Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy fatally shot on Nov. 22 by a rookie police officer, in Cleveland, Ohio, during a protest.

This might be why: A new study shows white people in the United States actually perceive black men to be physically bigger and more threatening than white men who are the same size. 

“Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot,” lead author John Paul Wilson, PhD, of Montclair State University, said in a press release. “Our research suggests that these descriptions may reflect stereotypes of black males that do not seem to comport with reality.”

police car

The study, published March 13 in the Journal of Personality and Psychology, asked 950 Americans questions about the size of white and black men in pictures. The white people in the study were more likely to say that black men who were the same size as white men were, in their view, bigger, more threatening, and more deserving of harm than white men.

“We found that these estimates were consistently biased. Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size,” Wilson said in the press release. “Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed.”

ferguson opinion poll
Black people also perceived black men to be bigger than white men, to a lesser degree. But they didn't see black men as more threatening or more deserving of harm or force. 

"Unlike non-black perceivers, however, black participants did not show a bias in harm perceptions, nor did bias in their size perceptions correlate with bias in their perceptions of harm," the study found. "Thus, although black individuals may have learned the same cultural stereotypes about the size of black men, they do not seem to apply these misperceptions the same way that non-black people do."

Blacks and whites experience the United States differently. 

A 2016 Pew survey found there are huge gaps in how white and black people view the U.S. The majority of black respondents (64 percent) said black people are treated less fairly than white people, while only 22 percent of white respondents said the same. On the issue of police shootings — black people are disproportionately shot and killed by cops — 65 percent of black people said they support the Black Lives Matter movement compared to 40 percent of whites.

RELATED: The Reason Black Lives Matter Isn't Just for Black People