MacArthur Genius Recipient Jennifer Eberhardt Discusses Her New Book 'Biased'
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Jennifer Eberhardt is a scientist, a social psychologist who studies how we interact with one another. For more than two decades, she has been unpacking implicit racial bias, how our perceptions of race play into our everyday interactions, even when we're not aware of it. She's trained police departments and guided tech startups on recognizing their own implicit bias and how it affects their work. Now she's written about her research in a new book called "Biased: Uncovering The Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, And Do."
Jennifer Eberhardt is African-American. She's a Stanford professor raising three sons with her husband in Silicon Valley. When we spoke, I asked her, how did she get started on studying racial bias?
JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Wow.
CHANG: Where do we even begin?
EBERHARDT: Maybe it started when I was just in elementary school. We lived in an all-black neighborhood, and everybody around me was black. You know, all of the significant relationships I had in my life were with black people. And my parents announced that we were going to move to an all-white suburb. And so I was worried about that. But when I got there, I also noticed, you know, that the resources were different. I mean, the school was nicer. You know, there were, you know, nice, lush playing fields. And so I started to, you know, think about how resources are aligned with race. And it was like we were living in different worlds.
CHANG: And you mentioned something that was so interesting in the book when you were living in this new neighborhood, that you had all these white friends, and at one point, you realize as a young girl that you had trouble telling them apart.
EBERHARDT: That's right. I did. It was very destabilizing - right? - because you think to perceive a face is kind of a basic thing that we take for granted.
CHANG: Because you didn't have that problem differentiating between black faces when you were growing up in your previous neighborhood.
EBERHARDT: I didn't at all. It was only in this new neighborhood. And I think that the white students there felt like, oh, well, you're a new, you know, kid and having trouble remembering their names. But I actually could not tell their faces apart.
CHANG: Wow, that is fascinating. I want to turn to a lot of the research that you've done on how there is this really powerful association in people's minds between black men and crime, even for black cops. Can you explain what trains people to adopt that connection?
EBERHARDT: Well, part of it is a connection for police officers in the kinds of people that they're interacting with. And in a lot of, you know, major cities that are racially diverse, you know, there is a racial disparity in the violent crime rate. And so that association gets made sort of way beyond what the evidence shows. Part of what a stereotype is is that you're sort of applying your beliefs, you know, about the group to a particular individual. But it also works in this other way where you have a belief about particular individuals, and you can apply those beliefs about that subgroup to the entire group.
CHANG: You know, that makes me think about - I've talked to cops. I used to be a criminal justice reporter. And it's really hard to rewire the brain when it comes to split-second decisions, like when to pull a gun out, you know...
CHANG: ...For instance, or when to pull the trigger.
CHANG: How do you have time, they asked, to process all the new self-awareness bias training might give you...
CHANG: ...When you are reacting in the moment? Is it possible to really retrain a reflex like that?
EBERHARDT: Well, one way you can address that - right? - is not placing people in those situations. And so in Oakland, Calif., I've done a fair bit of work with the police department there. They decided to change their foot pursuit policies. And so instead of chasing someone, you know, they were told to step back and set up a perimeter and call for backup. And so you're allowing them to kind of work through what the strategy should be and so forth. And so they found that it affected officer injuries, and it also affected officer-involved shootings. You know, they can slow it down and think it through. They're less likely to have bias, you know, affect what they do.
CHANG: So help us understand that story you told in the book about the Uber driver who was driving you around in Charlottesville. And he kind of explained to you something very honest about how he felt towards black people.
EBERHARDT: Yes, he did. So I went to Charlottesville to get a better understanding of that Unite the Right march in 2017.
EBERHARDT: I hop in an Uber to get to my hotel, and the Uber driver says to me, well, what brings you to town? And I thought, whoa.
EBERHARDT: I'm in the South, right? White Uber driver, you know, middle aged and, you know, could he be one of them? I said, hey, you know, I'm here because I'm writing a book on racial bias, and I'm here to talk to people about what transpired here. And he launched into this whole story about growing up with a black domestic worker in his home, and she was the most important person to him. She helped to raise him.
CHANG: He had so much tremendous affection for her.
EBERHARDT: Oh, so much affection. He went on and on telling me, and she'd just died, too, and so I think he was especially missing her and wanting me to know who she was. And so it was great, but then the tone changed. And he said there's bigotry in my veins. And I said, wow.
EBERHARDT: OK. So I'm getting a little nervous, and I can only see the back of his baseball cap - right? - 'cause I'm in the back seat. I couldn't see his expression or anything. And so I just asked him - I said, well, what did you mean? He says, well, I can feel it rising up. And I said, well, when can you feel it rising up? He said, when I'm outnumbered. You know, he said he lived in Florida, and he said he felt it there when he was outnumbered by Latinos. I just thought it was so honest.
CHANG: Do you see hope in someone like that? When you met him...
EBERHARDT: I do.
CHANG: Why? Why was that a hopeful experience for you?
EBERHARDT: It was hopeful because I could have decided to not say anything about the book I was writing or why I was there. And it felt like it was a gamble, frankly, to do that. But I decided I'm going to take the gamble. And I guess that's what I'd like people to get from the book, too, is just - I don't know. Don't turn away.
CHANG: Take a gamble.
EBERHARDT: Take a gamble.
EBERHARDT: Yeah. I mean, try to connect and keep trying to work on this because the minute we turn away, the worse it gets.
CHANG: Yeah. Jennifer Eberhardt's new book is called "Biased: Uncovering The Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, And Do." She's a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Thank you so much for talking to us.
EBERHARDT: Oh, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF A REMINISCENT DRIVE SONG, "AMBROSIA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.