A Hard Look at How We See Race

Jennifer Eberhardt’s research shows subconscious connections in people’s minds between Black faces and crime, and how those links may pervert justice. Law enforcement officers across the country are taking note.

September/October 2015

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A Hard Look at How We See Race

Photo: Nana Kolfki

The first time Jennifer Eberhardt presented her research at a law enforcement conference, she braced for a cold shoulder. How much would streetwise cops care what a social psychology professor had to say about the hidden reaches of racial bias?

Instead, she heard gasps, the loudest after she described an experiment that showed how quickly people link Black faces with crime or danger at a subconscious level. In the experiment, students looking at a screen were exposed to a subliminal flurry of Black or white faces. The subjects were then asked to identify blurry images as they came into focus frame by frame.

The makeup of the facial prompts had little effect on how quickly people recognized mundane items like staplers or books. But with images of weapons, the difference was stark—subjects who had unknowingly seen Black faces needed far fewer frames to identify a gun or a knife than those who had been shown white faces. For a profession dealing in split-second decisions, the implications were powerful.

Lorie Fridell, then head of research for a law enforcement policy group in Washington, D.C., says Eberhardt's research helped her resolve a nagging paradox. She sensed that law enforcement had a problem with racial profiling. Yet she was certain the vast majority of officers would sincerely recoil at the idea of policing with prejudice.

The answer, Eberhardt's work suggested, was largely in the subconscious. Intentions hardly mattered. "It totally changed my perspective," Fridell says.

More than a decade later, Eberhardt is no longer the anonymous academic she was then. A "genius award" from the MacArthur Foundation last year served as perhaps the broadest notice yet that Eberhardt is someone with something vital to say. Yet her signature remains the same: unsettling research revealing the long, pernicious reach of unconscious racial bias, and an unrelenting commitment to share her findings with the outside world.

"This is not someone who is just doing work in the ivory tower of a university," says Chris Magnus, chief of police in Richmond, Calif., a Bay Area city where a quarter of the population is Black. "This is someone who is really out in the trenches working with police departments and the criminal justice system."

Eberhardt's message is not an easy one to hear, particularly for the many Americans who think racial discrimination is largely a thing of the past, or that they themselves would never treat someone differently because of race, or that racism is somewhere else.

In one study capturing how high the stakes are, Eberhardt and her colleagues analyzed two decades' worth of capital murder cases in Philadelphia involving white victims and Black defendants—44 cases in all. The defendants' photographs were independently rated according to how stereotypically Black they appeared.

The reach of implicit bias, arising from America’s tortured racial history, from culture and from still pervasive inequities, is powerful, enduring and underrecognized.

The results of the research were startling. The half of defendants rated as the most stereotypically Black were more than twice as likely to have received a death sentence as those in the other half. "No matter what we controlled for, the Black defendants appeared to be punished in proportion to the blackness of their features," she said.

In another study in 2012, commuters at a Bay Area train station were shown informational slides about the California prison system and then asked if they'd sign a petition in support of a proposed (and ultimately successful) amendment to lessen the severity of the state's Three Strikes law, which gives mandatory life sentences to certain repeat offenders.

Approximately 25 percent of the state prison population at the time was Black. But 45 percent of prisoners serving a life sentence under the Three Strikes law then were Black. Commuters who saw a presentation in which 25 percent of the inmates depicted were Black were almost twice as likely to sign the petition as were those shown a presentation in which 45 percent of the inmates were Black.

The conclusion seemed perverse: Someone seeking to mitigate racial disparities in sentencing might be best served by not pointing them out. It's not that the respondents were necessarily bigots or even bad people, Eberhardt says. But the reach of implicit bias, arising from America's tortured racial history, from culture and from still pervasive inequities, is powerful, enduring and underrecognized, especially in the context of criminal justice.

Much of Eberhardt's work has focused on revealing the wide-ranging consequences of those biases. Her research has shown that police—Black and white officers alike—are more likely to mistakenly identify Black faces as criminal than white faces; that people show greater support for life sentences for juveniles when they read about a case involving a Black defendant than when the case involves a white defendant; and that words associated with crime can cause people to instinctively focus on Black faces. A picture of post-racial America it is not.

"She is saying things that make people uncomfortable, but she has the evidence to back up the reality of what's she's describing," says Susan Fiske, a Princeton social psychologist who calls Eberhardt's work simultaneously original, provocative and rigorous. "I think she has changed the way we all think about the American dilemma of race."

Social psychology has a long history of studying stereotypes—it's been core to the field's interest for generations, says Hazel Markus, a professor in the Stanford social psychology department and a close colleague of Eberhardt's. But Eberhardt has helped move the field's focus from the people with biased attitudes to the people targeted by those biases, and she has found ingeniously simple but powerful ways to make the problems with stereotyping apparent.

"She was looking for a way to show elegantly the real consequences for people, [and] to show it in a way that would wake people up to the fact that, when you're the target of these stereotypes, it can be harmful, if not life-threatening," Markus says.

Eberhardt's academic study of race began more than two decades ago during graduate school at Harvard, where she initially focused on cognitive psychology, a discipline pertaining to how people acquire, process and store information. It wasn't the right fit, and Eberhardt was looking for a new direction when she was struck by an experience she had as a teaching fellow for a social psychology class.

She was giving the class a demonstration of the "fundamental attribution error," a well-documented tendency people have to explain the outcome of a situation by assigning undue credit to personality traits rather than external factors that may be at play. For example, a stranger snaps at you for bumping into him at a supermarket—the initial reaction may be to label him a jerk, when in fact his response may be the result of poor sleep, a recent death of a loved one or severe stress at work.

Eberhardt asked a pair of students to play quizmasters. Each had to come up with 10 questions designed to stump two fellow classmates, who played the role of contestants. As intended, neither respondent knew more than a handful of the answers.

Afterward, Eberhardt asked the class to rate the sides for their level of general knowledge. Despite the obviously slanted playing field, observers of such scenarios—consistent with the fundamental attribution error—regularly rate the quizmasters, who know all the answers, higher than the contestants who struggle with them.

But that didn't happen this day. When Eberhardt asked the students to discuss the unexpected result, silence fell over the normally chatty class. Nobody wanted to mention what appeared to Eberhardt to be an obvious factor: As the result of drawing lots, the contestants had been white men, the quizmasters Black women.

After ending the awkward discussion, she turned to the reading of the week on unconscious racism, which reignited discussion, with students decrying such behavior. "But no one connected these studies to what had happened at the beginning of the class period," Eberhardt later wrote in her dissertation. "No one wanted to personalize what was so easy to condemn in the abstract."

The experience inspired her dissertation, which examined the effects of bias on the fundamental attribution error, and foreshadowed the dominant theme of her career—the hidden ways in which race shapes outcomes, even in people who deny it influences them.

Looking back, Eberhardt says the subject of race first fascinated her when she was growing up as the youngest of five children in a predominantly African American, working-class area of Cleveland called Lee-Harvard. Even as a small child, she instinctively zeroed in on the fact that race mattered, a realization that only amplified after her family moved to the mostly white suburb of Beachwood.

Her new home was a bike ride and a world away from her old neighborhood, a move enabled by her father, a mailman with an eighth-grade education who ran a successful side business in antiques and Tiffany glass.

Eberhardt guesses she might never have even gone to college if they'd stayed in Lee-Harvard. Her husband, Stanford law professor Rick Banks, '87, MA '87—who went to the same elementary school but was in the gifted class, which got far more attention—says the doggedness that defines her work probably has roots in those days, when little was expected of her. (He would go off to a private school for middle and high school; the two later remet at Harvard.)

At Beachwood, by comparison, college seemed inevitable. There were better facilities, better teachers and real expectations. Book smarts were no longer something to hide, she says; they were social currency. "People would choose their friends based on how smart they were," she says. "Stuff like that just didn't happen in my old neighborhood."

But it was also an early experience in feeling like a "race out of place," when she observed fundamental differences in how she and her classmates experienced the world. The disparities were blatant—her father and brothers were frequently pulled over by police—and subtle. When Eberhardt was in seventh grade, for example, soon after the move, her teacher asked the class to share their families' immigration stories.

As student after student told stories of their families leaving European countries, including tales of fleeing the Holocaust, Eberhardt's mind raced. Her own family's escape had been from the Jim Crow South. But Alabama and Georgia were clearly not countries. Neither was Africa, the other response that was twirling in her head.

In the end, she stood in front of the class and chose the answer she knew more about, Alabama and Georgia, to the laughter of her classmates. The other kids seemed to think she was joking.

"Because the worlds were so different, I just thought about race a lot and I thought about inequality a lot," she says. "I could suddenly see the place I had come from and sort of put it in a larger context.

From the beginning of her career at Stanford in 1998 (which she began as a non-tenure-track professor), the now-tenured Eberhardt has coupled scholarship with a drive to bring her research into the world, typically through novel collaborations with officials in the criminal justice system.

In 2004, with her reputation yet to be widely established, she organized an unprecedented conference at Stanford on racial bias in policing, bringing together scores of academics from across the country with law enforcement officials from 34 agencies in 13 states.

"Somehow she got us all together, and she got these major city chiefs and sheriffs to show up with an open mind," says Jack Glaser, a social psychologist at UC-Berkeley. "She . . . made this opportunity, which just didn't exist before. I really don't know how she pulled it off."

Eberhardt's feat required not just bridging camps with little history of dialogue, but also disregarding the pressures of a profession not set up to reward hand-in-hand work with real-world practitioners. Her persistence, though, has borne fruit for her and others who have followed.

"There was not a field of social psychology and criminal justice, and then there was Jennifer Eberhardt, and then there was a field," says UCLA professor Phillip Goff, MA '02, PhD '05, a former student of Eberhardt's and a collaborator on some of her most noted studies. "She made it possible for other folks to come after her."

He includes himself in that group. His work as co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, which fosters collaboration between police and social scientists, is riding the momentum Eberhardt created at the 2004 conference and again at a 2007 conference held at Stanford.

Eberhardt and her colleagues are analyzing footage of thousands of encounters recorded with officers’ body cameras . . . to parse the behaviors that lead to positive outcomes from those that spiral into problems.

"She made it possible for those of us who cared about Black lives to do work that was relevant to policy, but that social psychologists could recognize as their own," Goff says. "I can't even express to you how nontrivial that accomplishment is."

While other scientists have also made major advances in implicit bias research, it is Eberhardt who brought the science to police, says Fridell, who now heads her own business, which has trained law enforcement officers across the United States and Canada to recognize and mitigate their biases. "I wouldn't be doing this but for Jennifer Eberhardt."

Key to the training's appeal, Fridell says, is that it treats bias as a common human condition to be recognized and managed, rather than as a deeply offensive personal sin, an approach that makes cops less defensive. "They understand that it is a real issue with which they need to deal, but not because the profession is made up of ill-intentioned individuals with explicit biases (e.g., racists), but because the profession is comprised of humans," she said in an email.

Still, that very same message—the ubiquity of implicit bias—can lend an added grimness to Eberhardt's work. Racial bias against African Americans isn't confined to the past or the South or police or even whites. It seeps into everything, a point Eberhardt sometimes uses personal anecdote to reinforce.

Eight years ago or so, she was flying back to California from Harvard, where her husband was teaching winter term, when the middle of their three sons pointed out a man he said looked like his dad.

Eberhardt was bemused. The stranger was probably the only Black male on the plane, but he was crowned with long dreadlocks, not exactly a ringer for her decidedly bald husband. But before she could quiz him for the connection, the 5-year-old added, "I hope he doesn't rob the plane."

Even with her vast knowledge of the insidiousness of bias, Eberhardt was floored. Her son grew up in one of the most educated areas in the country, watched little TV and hardly seemed to notice race. And yet he had connected blackness and crime and his father, the parent he was probably closer to at the time.

"He didn't know why he said it. And he didn't know why he thought it," she says. "But at 5, you already have what you need to come to that conclusion."

Eberhardt's radiant smile and easy laugh can make it seem she somehow rides above the implications of her findings. And indeed for a long time, Eberhardt would shrug off questions about how she deals with the bleaker aspects of her research.

But after she had given a lecture at San Quentin State Prison, an inmate serving a life sentence made her reevaluate. "He said, 'I am really happy you do the work you do, but I don't know how you do it—it's so depressing,'" she recalls. "Hearing it from that guy felt different. This is a guy who has a life sentence."

She began to realize she was feeling a toll, particularly after research for a 2008 paper she published with Goff and two others revealed persistent connections in people's minds between Black people and apes. One part of the six-part study showed that in the same way that subjects identified images of guns more quickly when unconsciously primed with Black faces, so could they pick out apes much sooner. The old racist trope had seemingly died out, a small sign of progress, but the experiments suggested the connection was still robust.

Eberhardt - GunIn one experiment, subjects were subliminally shown Black or white faces, then asked to identify a blurry image as it came into focus over 41 frames. On average, participants primed with Black faces could identify a weapon nine frames sooner (middle-left) than those primed with white faces could (middle-right). (Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Eberhardt)

That realization led her to shift more of her energies from delineating the problem to finding solutions. "People need to have hope," she says.

Eberhardt has been heavily involved with the Oakland Police Department—to the point that she's almost embedded, says Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa. She attends staff meetings, gives feedback, tracks data and provides training.

Her work raising awareness at the department about implicit bias has contributed to changes that include a new policy for foot pursuits. Rather than follow a suspect into a backyard, Figueroa says, officers are now supposed to wait for backup, reducing the chances of a high-adrenaline confrontation in which biases can surface unchecked.

"If we slow down and take our time and go in very slowly and methodically, we put everyone in a safer position," he says.

Figueroa is eager for the results of one of Eberhardt's most ambitious projects. She and her colleagues are analyzing footage of thousands of encounters recorded with officers' body cameras in an attempt to parse the behaviors that lead to positive outcomes from those that spiral into problems. Such scrutiny can be uncomfortable, Figueroa says, but it's worth the investment in the future.

"For the first time in history, we'll be able to see firsthand how police officers make contact with the public and how those interactions unfold in real time," Eberhardt says. "And we'll soon be in a position to design interventions that can directly affect the course of those interactions."

She is also working with Oakland and Stockton police and California Attorney General Kamala Harris to develop statewide training on implicit bias that can be measured for efficacy over time. And President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report in May that quotes her testimony in its call for implicit bias training at all levels of law enforcement.

"I think we're going to find in the next few years that the standard will become that officers start learning about implicit bias when they are recruits," says Magnus, the Richmond police chief. He credits Eberhardt for pushing for the change. "She has really helped advance the discussions and put it in the framework of science, which takes a lot of the emotion out of it."

Not everyone buys the idea of racial bias being an unconscious problem, Magnus says; some believe it should be viewed as a more deliberate form of discrimination. And some community members have questioned whether implicit bias isn't just convenient cover for racist behavior.

Scientists like Goff say that's not the case. "You will never hear me say, 'It's implicit so it's not your fault,'" he says. "You are still in control of your behavior."

Still, Eberhardt says focusing only on individual instances of racism, on getting rid of the "bad people," won't solve the problem. There needs to be an emphasis on reforming cultural and institutional environments that promote bias—for example, by fixing policies that create racial discrepancies in hiring or incarceration. "Bias can grow organically out of that," she says.

During a lecture at Stanford in April, while standing under an image of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot and killed by police in her hometown of Cleveland, Eberhardt made explicit the connection between her research and the events roiling the nation. The recent protests and tumult in response to police killings, she said, are part of the cost of not seeing—the price of our blindness to bias.

"All over this country, Black people are still finding themselves in situations where they feel the state does not fully protect them, where they feel the state does not fully register their pain," she said.

But she does see signs of progress, from new policies to new training to a greater attention and openness to the problem. Less often there's denial. That awareness enables incremental change.

"I always knew I wasn't going to be the person who made a difference because I had the loudest voice. . . . I wasn't going to make a difference from litigation or from protesting," she says. "I felt like through the research I could make a difference."

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford.

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