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Default First steps in confronting our prejudices

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Of the many issues that define the social and political landscape of 21st-century America, none is more vexing than that of race.

Though race penetrates the consciousness of many white Americans only in times of crisis (like Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 or Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017), it cuts deeply across the daily lives of African-Americans and other people of color. Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s enlightening new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the challenging and painful interactions that surround issues of prejudice and racial bias.

In a call to her home in Palo Alto, California, Dr. Eberhardt eagerly explains her desire to write about racial bias for the general reader. After winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2014 for her work in this field, she felt the weight of added responsibility. She says she wanted “to share my work in a way that could be useful to people and could potentially have an impact with a broader audience.”

Motivated by the fact that “there weren’t a lot of books out there that focused on the science behind implicit bias,” Eberhardt sought to produce a work that would treat this subject in a comprehensive fashion. “I wanted to take this one aspect of bias and look at how we’re grappling with it in different spaces—in neighborhoods, in schools, in the workplace and in the criminal justice system,” she says, “to really give people a view of how it shows up and how it can affect them in all these different ways.”

Asked to define implicit bias, Eberhardt offers a succinct explanation: “the beliefs and the attitudes that we have about social groups that can be triggered unconsciously, or without our awareness, and that can go on to affect our decision-making and our behavior.”

Biased features an assortment of troubling studies through which Eberhardt shows how these attitudes—unexpressed and typically deeply suppressed—can be responsible for almost instantaneous, and often invidious, judgments. Results of one study reveal that job applicants with black-sounding names are 50 percent less likely to get a callback than their white counterparts, and another shows that people primed with photographs of African-American men will more quickly identify disguised photographs of guns and knives.

Eberhardt’s perspective on the subject of implicit bias has been strongly influenced by her work with the Oakland, California, police department. In 2014, she was appointed to a federal oversight team to monitor Oakland’s policing after a settlement of litigation that alleged a pattern of racist misconduct within the department. Through training programs developed by Eberhardt and her team, she has helped Oakland’s officers become more conscious of the triggers, fueled by unconscious bias, that can arise during traffic stops and other encounters with African--American residents of the city, before they lead to catastrophic violence.

But Eberhardt has also been gratified by her work outside the context of law -enforcement. Two examples of her constructive consultations with well-known businesses include the neighborhood social network Nextdoor and the home-sharing service Airbnb. Both online platforms became concerned about racial bias among their users, with the former experiencing a high percentage of “crime and safety” posts with racist overtones, and the latter encountering serious evidence of discrimination in its rental process. Eberhardt’s discussions with management, she says, enabled businesses to “actually engage with the research and solve a problem.”

Biased is also enriched by Eberhardt’s candor in drawing on her own experiences as a black woman and mother of three sons. Among the most vivid of these stories is her account of moving to a nearly all-white suburb of Cleveland at age 12, in which she highlights the difficulty she encountered when she was “confronted with a mass of white faces that I could not distinguish from one another” (a phenomenon known as the “other-race effect”), and the disturbing story of her baseless arrest during a traffic stop the day before she was scheduled to receive her Ph.D. in 1993.

While Eberhardt is a strong advocate of training to raise awareness and begin the process of changing behavior influenced by implicit bias, she acknowledges that some of the enthusiasm for that proposed remedy “has really taken off before people have had the opportunity to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work so well.” She cautions that those involved in providing training may be motivated by their own bias to report favorable outcomes.

Even as she recognizes that it’s more realistic to manage implicit bias than to erase it, Eberhardt concludes the conversation on an optimistic note: “In addition to people taking away a good understanding of racial bias—how it works and how it is studied—I would like them to take away hope. Hope that we can do better and be better. In fact, one of the key ingredients to addressing racial bias, as it turns out, is a belief that change is possible. In simply writing the book and talking to people in different environments—from schools to courtrooms, from prisons to workplaces—I found myself changed and inspired.”

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