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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > January February 2018 > A Hard Look at How We See Race

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.

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 in 2014 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, California, 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.”

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