16 min read ⌚
Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do
Racism is still a serious problem in the United States – even in the 21st century.
The problem, it seems, is the way our human nature evolved.
As Jennifer L. Eberhardt demonstrates, you don’t have to be racist to be:
Who Should Read “Biased”? And Why?
According to Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, Biased “should be a required reading for everyone.”
And even though that is true (especially if you are an American), to avoid generalizations, we’ll also quote Linda Darling-Hammond, author of The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity will Determine our Future: “Biased is deeply relevant to education and other fields of work, within the U.S. and globally. Dr. Eberhardt’s work offers a touchstone for educators, leaders, lawmakers, and all those who want a society that serves everyone equally.”
About Jennifer L. Eberhardt
Jennifer L. Eberhardt is an American social psychologist and professor of psychology at Stanford University.
A winner of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2014, Eberhardt is also a co-director of SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences ever since 2016.
Dubbed one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, Eberhardt is the author of numerous studies on racial discrimination and implicit bias, but Biased is her first book.
“Biased PDF Summary”
Whether you want to admit to yourself or not, you are irrefutably, at least to some extent, a racist—though that’s not the right term.
You see, we are born with something modern social psychologists refer to as “implicit bias,” that is to say, an innate predilection for people who look like us coupled with an immediate suspicion against those who are different.
Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s magisterial study, Biased, is an examination of precisely this: implicit bias—what it is, where it comes from, how it affects us, and how we can address it.
Describing the phenomenon as “a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society,” Eberhardt explains right away that it can be associated with everything, i.e., we can hold biases based on all sorts of characteristics: skin color, age, weight, ethnic origin, accent, disability, height, gender.
However, Biased is primarily about race, and primarily about the relationship between blacks and whites, not only because “the racial dynamics between blacks and whites are dramatic, consequential, and enduring,” but also because these two groups “have been studied the most by researchers investigating bias.”
“We all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us,” writes Eberhardt in a further delineation of the subject-matter of her book. “Those ideas have the power to bias our perception, our attention, our memory, and our actions—all despite our conscious awareness or deliberate intentions. Our ideas about race are shaped by the stereotypes to which we are exposed on a daily basis. And one of the strongest stereotypes in American society associates blacks with criminality.”
But is this not, once again, the Euthyphro dilemma at play? Namely, how could there be such a thing as a prevailing stereotype if it is not based on something factual? But if it is factual, then why is it a stereotype as well? Also, if there’s no truth in associating blacks with criminality, then why are so many African-Americans in prison? Can we do something about it?
These are all questions that Biased tries to answer. Chapter by chapter, we’ll try to sum up Eberhardt’s answers and analyses below.
Part I: What Meets the Eye
Chapter 1: Seeing Each Other
Back in 2000, a now well-known Stanford study revealed something quite remarkable: London cab drivers had enlarged posterior hippocampal regions (the part of the brain that plays a critical role in spatial memory and navigation) in comparison with a control group of people who didn’t drive cabs for a living.
In fact, the connection was even more blatant: the longer the drivers had been on the job and the more experience they had, the larger their posterior hippocampus.
This inspired Jennifer L. Eberhardt to ask herself a somewhat frightening question: “Because our experiences in the world are reflected in our brains, might our expertise in recognizing faces of our own race—and failing to recognize those of others—display its own neurobiological signature as well?”
To answer this question, Eberhardt joined a team of Stanford scientists who studied something known as the fusiform face area (FFA). Buried deep near the base of the brain, the FFA helps us distinguish the familiar from the unfamiliar, friend from foe. It is widely thought to be “both primitive and fundamental to our survival as a species. Affiliation is a basic human need. Without the ability to track the identity of those around us, we are left alone, vulnerable, and exposed.”
What did the study find out?
“By tracking the activation of the FFA over multiple displays of strangers’ faces,” writes Eberhardt, “we found that the FFA was responding more vigorously to faces that were the same race as the study participant…. We also found that the more dramatic the FFA response to a specific face, the more likely the study participants were able to recognize that stranger’s face when they were shown the photograph again later, outside the scanner.”
In other words, the experiment was the first neuroimaging study to uncover that we are both evolutionary and biologically hardwired to feel affiliation toward those who look like us. Even more, that there is “a neural component to the same-race advantage in the face-recognition process.”
And, you know what? On a certain intuitive level, we already know this!
To demonstrate this, Eberhardt refers to the numerous recent cases of black teens snatching purses from middle-aged Chinese women in Oakland’s Chinatown. At first, the police wondered why did the attacks targeted such a specific group of people, but, soon after, profilers unearthed the reason: the black teenagers knew that Chinese women would have problems differentiating between them and, thus, would be unable to identify them even if caught.
Chapter 2: Nurturing Bias
And we all suffer from this type of racial blindness, which is the by-product of the same-race advantage in the face-recognition process. The less one has interacted with members of another race, the more they tend to generalize about that race.
And not merely in terms of psychology or behavior (that is, the intangibles), but also in terms of something quite visible and discernible such as appearance. Just as to an average middle-aged Chinese woman all black teenagers look the same, to an average black teenager, all Chinese middle-aged women are identical as well.
Humans, as species, rely on this kind of “categorizing” to manage information more efficiently. Whether we like it or not, it “is a fundamental tool that our brains are wired to use. And the categorization process applies not just to people; it works on all things. Just as we place people into categories, we place other animals into categories. We place food into categories. We place furniture into categories. And we fill every category we develop with information and imbue it with feelings that guide our actions toward it.”
However, since categorizing precedes experience (Kant was one of the first people to notice this), and since our brains have developed to help us survive, and not to be right, we tend to notice only things that support our preconceived beliefs and ignore facts that contradict them. And we teach our children to do the same through our actions, conscious or unconscious.
It’s a vicious circle we can best illustrate by taking a quote from the “Introduction” to Biased (rather than from the second chapter):
This stereotypic association [between blacks and criminality] is so powerful that the mere presence of a black face, even one that appears so fleetingly we are unaware of it, can cause us to see weapons more quickly—or to imagine weapons that are not there. The mere thought of violent crime can lead us to shift our eyes away from a white face and toward a black face. And although looking black is not a crime, jurors are more likely to deliver a death sentence to black felons who have stereotypically black facial features than to those who do not, at least when their victims are white.
Bias can lead to racial disparities in everything from preschool suspensions to corporate leadership. And the disparities themselves then bolster our biases. For example, knowing that a disproportionate amount of violent crime is committed by young black men can bias judgments about black people more generally. That affects how blacks are seen in all manner of situations—whether sitting in a classroom or a coffee shop, whether leading a Fortune 500 company or fighting a California wildfire. The stereotypes shadow them.
Part II: Where We Find Ourselves
Chapter 3: A Bad Dude
Remember the case of Philando Castile?
Back in 2016, he was shot seven times by a policeman named Jeronimo Yanez in front of the eyes of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter after being stopped for a traffic violation.
And what about Tamir Rice?
He was just 12 years old and playing with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, when a 26-year-old police officer Timothy Loehmann shot him in the torso, before even parking his car. And he wasn’t even charged with a crime.
Black lives matter—but they matter less to whites. And the reason is simple: they don’t see black people the way black people see each other: they see them as natural threats. Eberhardt did a couple of studies that uncovered that white police officers are more inclined to focus their attention on a black face after being shown a word related to criminal activity.
In other words, it is an unconscious association.
This is why even though merely 1% of all police interactions with civilians are non-violent, black people suffer the most: white police officers, even when stopping them for something minor, expect them to be violent due to their preconceived notions and act accordingly.
Chapter 4: Male Black
Eberhardt and her team analyzed about 28,000 police stops between 2013 and 2014 to see if the hypothesis described above bears a relation with reality.
Unfortunately, it does: based on the factual data, police officers disproportionately more often both stopped and arrested black residents even in the cases when blacks and whites were stopped for precisely the same violation. This, in turn, resulted in the quite expected reinforcement of the stereotype: more blacks are in prison, meaning more blacks should be in prison.
The numbers don’t lie: 1 out of 4 black people was handcuffed during these police stops even when no arrest was made. The same held true for only 1 out of 15 white people. According to police officers, it was for safety reasons. And this is the best illustration of implicit bias you can find.
To make matters worse, the mass incarceration of African-Americans is becoming more and more problematic because the vicious circle goes in the opposite direction as well. Namely, just as white police officers don’t trust “male blacks” because they are polluted with this type of skepticism (both organically and culturally), “male blacks” do not trust police officers either, because they feel that they are being discriminated; and so, they discriminate back.
As Jill Leovy pointed out in Ghettoside, in more than one way, in African-American ghettos, it’s not gangs that produce lawlessness, but lawlessness that produces gangs.
So, the way out isn’t more imprisoned people, but, as paradoxically as it may sound, more law:
Decades of research have shown that across a variety of professions people care as much about how they are treated during the course of an interaction as the outcome of that interaction. In the policing context, this suggests that people stopped by police care as much about how police officers treat them as they do about whether they got a ticket. In fact, both research and real-life experience have shown that if officers act in accordance with four tenets—voice, fairness, respect, trustworthiness—residents will be more inclined to think of the police as legitimate authorities and therefore be more likely to comply with the law.
Chapter 5: How Free People Think
As Michelle Alexander demonstrated in The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration is basically a modern variant of slavery, because it is not mostly an African-American problem—but it is also, almost exclusively, an American problem (with blacks).
Even though African-Americans make up only about one-tenth of the overall population in the USA, almost half of the imprisoned men and women are African-Americans! That’s a staggering discrepancy that, obviously, cannot be easily explained in any rational manner whatsoever.
It’s not only that detention rates for blacks are four times higher than for white as we described above, but it is also that, on average, their bail is 35% higher!
No wonder a federal investigation following the death of Michael Brown – who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri – discovered that blacks often suffer due to something they referred to as “unlawful bias”!
Chapter 6: The Scary Monster
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was violently beaten by LAPD officers during his arrest for fleeing and evading on California State Route 210. Even though the police officers spoke of Rodney King using unambiguous racial terms (equating African-Americans with apes) they were eventually acquitted, an event that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Just recently, English football players of African descent were mocked in precisely the same manner in Bulgaria: every time one of them touched the ball, supporters of the Bulgarian national team imitated ape sounds. And this is not an isolated incident: it happens so often, in fact, that numerous games have been halted because of this—in France only.
Eberhardt demonstrates how this type of racial abuse is not isolated in time as well: it has a sound historical basis in many pseudoscientific theories of the 19th century that presented African-Americans as sub-humans.
Many people nowadays believe this, even though it is a known fact that all humans have descended from Africa and share a common ancestry.
Part III: The Way Out
Chapter 7: The Comfort of Home
Even when stats show otherwise, most Americans (even blacks) tend to associate the presence of a majority of blacks in a neighborhood with higher crime rates. Because of this, modern American society is still segregated.
And what does this lead to?
Here’s a good example: at Nextdoor.com—a social network app which connects about 200,000 US neighborhoods—even though most of the people go to sell something or find a good plumber, from time to time, a “suspicious black man” post appears.
This type of racial profiling became a serious problem a few years back and the company contacted Eberhardt to find a solution. Eberhardt realized that all of these posts owe their existence to the implicit bias present in people: they judge these “suspicious black men” based on their appearance, and not based on their behavior.
But that’s what tends to occur when you’re thinking fast: the innate biases and categorizations buried within you flow to the surface because the brain has to make an instant decision. However, when you’re thinking slow, you can rationalize the process.
And that’s what Eberhardt suggested Nextdoor should do: find a way to delay the posting of “suspicious black man” alerts. So, Nextdoor added some friction and since about two years ago, for the crime and safety tab, you can’t just write—you have to identify some behavior that is actually suspicious.
And this process includes “a checklist of reminders” that people have to click through before they can post something about someone “suspicious”:
• Focus on behavior. What was the person doing that concerned you, and how does it relate to a possible crime?
• Give a full description, including clothing, to distinguish between similar people. Consider unintended consequences if the description is so vague that an innocent person could be targeted.
• Don’t assume criminality based on someone’s race or ethnicity. Racial profiling is expressly prohibited.
Thus, the people at Nextdoor managed to delay the initial response of concerned citizens, making its users think and slowing them down.
They managed to curb racial profiling by about 75%!
Chapter 8: Hard Lessons
As everybody knows, racism and implicit bias can be tackled (and have been tackled) by the process of desegregation. The reason is obvious: the more time people of different racial backgrounds spend with each other, the less they are inclined to act on instinct for the simple reason that instinct can now give way to experience.
However, forcing people that are primed to despise each other into contact has precisely the opposite effect: it merely confirms biases and inevitably leads to serious issues. Finding common ground with someone your body and mind tell you is different from you can only be achieved through frequent contact—and only over periods of time.
Unfortunately—and almost unconsciously—we seem to have started treading a wrong path, as the result of which, according to research by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, “the number of intensely segregated schools—where less than 10 percent of students are white—has more than tripled in the past thirty years.”
Forcing people to go against their instincts without an explanation is what has this produced this outcome. Most whites think that it is rude to talk of skin color and oftentimes they omit this information even in the case when it is necessary. In addition, they don’t talk about it at all.
“When people focus on not seeing color,” writes Eberhardt, “they may also fail to see discrimination.” To paraphrase Mellody Hobson’s famous TED Talk, the fight against racism shouldn’t be about developing colorblindness—but color braveness. People should talk about this openly and freely. And they should talk about it at school, where, unfortunately, so many things are taken at face value nowadays that, according to a 2017 survey, “only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the primary reason the South seceded from the Union. Nearly half of the students said it was to protest taxes on imported goods.”
Chapter 9: Higher Learning
Segregation is only one of the regresses we’ve witnessed during the past decade, as anyone who saw even a single video of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 would testify.
Unfortunately, many white people in the USA are afraid of the changes in US demographics and have started posing the question who are we bound to become as a nation. This has resulted not merely in the upsurge of prejudice against African-Americans, but also in the highly unexpected increase in anti-Semitic violence: just between 2015 and 2017, it spiked 60%!
Believe it or not, according to a survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 22% of young Americans who came of age in the twenty-first century have never heard of the Holocaust. And two-thirds of them—meaning, four in ten Americans overall—have failed to identify “Auschwitz” as a Nazi death camp!
While we discuss the limits of free speech with people who are advocating equality, right-wing groups have slowly, but surely, regrouped and started doing things nobody believed would be repeated.
Blatant bigotry is, unfortunately, not a relic of the past. “In truth,” Eberhardt writes, “bias has been biding its time in an implicit world—in a place where we need not acknowledge it to ourselves or to others, even as it touches our soul and drives our behavior.”
Chapter 10: The Bottom Line
One in two white Americans (55% to be exact) believe affirmative action favoring African-Americans discriminates them.
At the same time, many African-American graduates from top-tier schools “whiten” their CVs (by, say, using their initials or different names) so as to not trigger their interviewers’ implicit bias. Needless to say, “whitened” CVs do get more interviews.
Implicit bias, in other words, works inside us (and against those who are not like us) even when we say it doesn’t: that’s why it’s called implicit. That’s why it’s hard to eliminate it as well.
However, uncovering cases of implicit bias at work does help because, for one, it paves the way for a rational (i.e. not instinctual) discussion, and secondly, it helps researchers get to the root cause of it and, thus, suggest ways we can tackle it.
Key Lessons from “Biased”
1. You Don’t Have to Be Racist to Be Biased
2. African-Americans Are Discriminated and Dehumanized
3. Tackling Implicit Bias Is Difficult—but Doable
You Don’t Have to Be Racist to Be Biased
“When people think about racism,” says Jennifer L. Eberhardt in an interview for Time magazine, “they’re thinking about bigots. But you don’t have to have a moral failing to act on an implicit bias.”
In other words, even if you’re consciously against racists and racism, you are implicitly biased because (as numerous studies have shown) you were programmed by evolution to love the people that are like you and doubt those that are not.
This is implicit bias, a sort of “distorting lens” engraved in your eyes that, unfortunately, gets distorted even more by the disparities in our society.
African-Americans Are Discriminated and Dehumanized
Even though African-Americans make up only 12% of the US population, they also contribute with staggering 40% to the total number of incarcerated criminals in the country.
If you think that this is because they’ve deserved it more—Justice is blind and all that—think otherwise: Eberhardt studied 28,000 random police stops made between 2013 and 2014 only to discover that African-Americans are habitually handcuffed (1 in 4 individuals) as opposed to white Americans (1 in 15)!
Moreover, the bail for an average African-American detainee is, on average, 35% higher than the bail for a white American.
This is not because someone is consciously discriminating against African-Americans. It is because the people in our institutions are mostly whites and they are primed to discriminate unconsciously against people who are not like them.
And this goes so far that experiments have shown that white people still think, unconsciously, of black people as something almost sub-human. Racists merely make this equation a bit clearer.
Tackling Implicit Bias Is Difficult—but Doable
Since it is implicit by definition, this discriminatory bias is difficult to be eradicated.
However, there are some things that work to alleviate it:
• Open discussions about cases of implicit bias (not talking about it is what has produced right-wing groups)
• Adding friction in the decision-making processes: the faster a person should decide about something, the more instinctual their decision (that’s why police officers often shoot African-Americans);
• Creating desegregated schools (more contact amounts to more experience and more experience tends to negate bias over time).
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“Biased Quotes”When people focus on not seeing color, they may also fail to see discrimination. Click To Tweet When the police kill unarmed black suspects, those deaths are associated with a significant dip in the mental health of blacks across the entire state where those killings occurred. Click To Tweet Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society. Click To Tweet It’s implausible to believe that officers… can be immersed in an environment that repetitively exposes them to the categorical pairing of blacks with crime and not have that affect how they think, feel, or behave. Click To Tweet Only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the primary reason the South seceded from the Union. Nearly half of the students said it was to protest taxes on imported goods. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, deemed Biased “groundbreaking” shortly after publication and said that it presented “the science of bias with rare insight and accessibility.”
And how can it be any different when, to quote the words of Mindset author, Carol Dweck, “Jennifer is one of the great thinkers and one of the great voices of our time.” Dweck believes that “her book will change the conversation on race in our society–and perhaps our society itself.”We are not so optimistic, but hope for the same outcome. Because if this book doesn’t convince you that what you believe and think you know is merely something that your brain wants you to – and is not necessarily based on reality – then very few books can, let alone will.