The Taller You Are, The More Likely You Are To Be Affected By Police Racism

Being Black in America makes you more likely to be targeted by the police without reason. Being tall just makes it worse. AS Photo Studio/Shutterstock

Racist policing that singles out non-white individuals, particularly Black men, is also affected by height. The harm done as a result is so great the authors of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studying the phenomenon question whether it outweighs the benefits normally reported for taller men.

In ancient times being tall was a mixed blessing. It might help with hunting or battle, but the extra food required was a big price to pay, keeping our size in balance. These days, with food more plentiful, being tall is considered a clear win, particularly for men. Even if they never make it as basketball stars, tall men have been shown to earn more and have more sexual partners. Studies have shown people naturally assume tall men are more capable. The taller candidate has won almost every post-war American presidential election, for example.

There may be an exception to this, however. After Eric Garner was choked to death by police arresting him for selling cigarettes, the writer and lawyer Charles Coleman Jr claimed in Ebony tall Black men are more heavily targeted by police. Graduate student Neil Hester and Dr Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina decided to test if this was true, using data from the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk program before it was ruled unconstitutional for its history of racial bias.

As the court found, Black and Hispanic men were far more likely to be stopped by police officers. Hester and Gray dug deeper, however, seeing if height influenced this. For simplicity, they removed Hispanic and Asian men from the sample, as well as those outside the height range 166-193 centimeters (5 foot 4 inches to 6 foot 4 inches). They also restricted themselves to cases where individuals provided photo identification listing their height, rather than where the officers guessed.

For the shortest men in the study, police stopped 4.5 Black men for every white man. This rose to 5.3 for men at mid-height, and 6.2 for the tallest part of the sample population. Weight also represented an increased risk, but a smaller one. The authors argue that, in a racist society, being a tall Black man; “Primarily signal[s] threat rather than competence.”

To show the phenomenon isn't restricted to police forces, the authors took photographs of 16 men and manipulated them to make some versions look like they were taller than others. Study participants rated the people in the images on various characteristics. The taller the white men looked, the more competent the participants considered them. Black men, on the other hand, were rated more threatening with height; whether they were also seen as more competent depended on context; only scoring higher for competence when threat was not seen as an issue.


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