A family of refugees that fled their homes due to violence from Boko Haram rest inside a refugee camp in Minawao, Cameroon.  (Edwin Kindzeka Moki/AP)

The backlash against how media and aid organizations portray Africans has reached a fever pitch. A wave of criticism has pointed out how American journalists only cover Africa’s outbreaks of disease, disaster and violence, while overlooking the region’s many political and economic success stories. Academic commentaries (including recent Monkey Cage posts) on so-called “Ooga booga” journalism are legion, but perhaps the best summary lies in parody, courtesy of The Onion newspaper headline, “Tens of Thousands Dead in Ongoing Africa.” Foreign aid agencies — or, to one critic, the “White Savior Industrial Complex”  — also focus on the negative as part of their fundraising efforts, playing up narratives that Africa’s helpless victims can only be saved by the West. Again, some of the most compelling criticism lies in comedy:  Witness the faux campaign Radi-Aid, which apes Band Aid’s famous fundraising efforts with a hilarious music video in which South African singers croon their request that viewers share Africa’s warmth by donating radiators to frigid Norway.

What are the consequences of these Western portrayals of Africans? Critics have made numerous speculations: misinformation, stereotyping, validation of white privilege, excessive fear of foreigners and immigrants and even mishandled foreign policy interventions. The list of purported consequences is so long that at times it becomes internally contradictory. Jeffrey Sachs, the aid regime’s leading intellectual proponent, attributes the alleged shortfall in aid funding to Westerners’ resentment — “an amazing reservoir of deep prejudices” — against Africans. By contrast, his intellectual archrival, William Easterly, blames what he sees to be excessive and wasteful aid spending on Westerners’ paternalistic attitudes toward Africans: Donors reduce aid effectiveness by controlling what recipients can do with it. Are any of these speculations accurate?

In a new article published in the American Political Science Review (gated and ungated versions), I report on two different Internet-based survey experiments that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 on white U.S. respondents. I explored the nature of white Americans’ attitudes toward foreigners of African descent as well as the manner in which these attitudes shape their opinions about aid. I expected to find that white Americans are more paternalistic than they are stingy and resentful toward foreigners of African descent. After all, the recurring helpless-victim storyline dehumanizes foreign blacks by downplaying their ability to exercise agency — that is, their capacity to plan and follow through on efforts to improve their own lot. The media narrative would seemingly promote sentiments of paternalism, a term that invokes the authoritative but benevolent relationship of parents to their children, with the latter needing guidance since children are unable to act “properly” on their own. This is, in fact, what I found.

In the first experiment, a random selection of respondents began the survey by viewing a photograph of a poor black family that they were told was Cameroonian. Another set of respondents saw a photograph of a white family that they were told was Moldovan. In an effort to isolate the impact of race and hold objective need constant, both sets of respondents were told (largely truthfully) that the average person in the country depicted gets by on $5 per day. Respondents then answered a series of questions about the poor in foreign countries and about international aid. Respondents in the Cameroonian treatment group were more likely than those in the Moldovan treatment group to agree with statements such as this one: “There is little that people in poor countries can do by themselves to improve their livelihoods.”

The second experiment returned the same result. This one was designed in a similar way — one group of respondents seeing a white family and the other a black family — except that the countries mentioned were Armenia and Guyana. (The latter was chosen to protect against claims that the first experiment had discovered a stereotype about Africans but not blacks.) Again, those seeing the black family were more likely to agree with statements like this one: “When it comes to improving their economic standard of living, people in poor countries are like extremely sick or paralyzed patients; they are completely unable to help themselves.” In sum, in both experiments, the presence of the black family and the Cameroonian/Guyanese prompt pushed white respondents to perceive less agency — less capacity for self-improving action — among the foreign poor.

In turn, the higher levels of paternalistic thinking toward foreigners of African descent led to less opposition to foreign aid among respondents in the black treatment groups. Pretty much everyone in both surveys wanted to cut the U.S. foreign aid budget, but, in the first experiment, those cued with Moldova wanted to cut aid by 40 percent  more than those cued with Cameroon. The effect of race in the second experiment was equally large but, interestingly, only in the presence of paternalistic control over how aid monies were used. When told that recipients received aid in-kind — that is, “as free school materials or free doctors’ visits” — those in the Guyana treatment group were more generous about aid than those in the Armenia treatment group. However, when told that recipients received aid as cash “so that they can spend it any that they would like,” race had no effect. In other words, respondents’ greater generosity toward black foreigners quickly melted away in the face of information that black recipients were not paternalistically controlled when using aid-funded benefits.

Most research on public opinion about economic redistribution across racial lines focuses on domestic welfare spending, and it tends to find that American whites, largely out of racial resentment, are less enthusiastic about redistribution to African-Americans than to other whites. My findings here reveal a rare case of greater generosity to one’s racial outgroup than to one’s racial ingroup, yet this does not mean prejudice is absent. It is grounded in a widespread underestimation of Africans’ and Caribbeans’ agency, a narrative that surely stems from the pornography of violence,immiseration, and helplessness propagated by Western media. Of course, my point is not that generosity toward needy Africans is inherently prejudicial, but that mass attitudes and media messages should recognize them as participants in their own development outcomes.

Andy Baker is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is the author of the Market and the Masses in Latin America and Shaping the Developing World.