Jennifer Eberhardt is fascinated with objects. It may seem an incongruous fixation for a social psychologist, but it helped the Stanford University associate professor land a spot among the creative and academic elite Wednesday, when the MacArthur Foundation awarded her its “genius” fellowship.
Eberhardt, 49, was cited for her efforts to examine how subtle, ingrained racial biases influence not just how we view people, but the objects of our daily world — and how those perceptions skew institutions such as the criminal justice system. She has transferred that work from laboratories filled with brain-scanning machines to police precincts, where she has advised cops about the ways their own minds can lead them onto perilous ground.
“Most people know that African Americans are associated with crime and that they’re stereotyped as criminal — in fact it’s one of the strongest stereotypes of blacks in American society,” Eberhardt said. “My work focuses on how that association might matter at different points in the criminal justice system and how this association can then affect us in surprising ways.”
It matters because people can transfer associations from people to objects and places.
Eberhardt likes to use the example of the watch her late father, Harlan Eberhardt, gave her when his mother died. That watch had been her grandmother’s prized possession. As she put it on her wrist, Jennifer Eberhardt was overwhelmed by the power of her own associations, now invested in the old timepiece. “I could see my grandmother alive again,” she recalled in one of her lectures.
But the apparent ease with which the human mind shifts associations from people to objects and back can lead to trouble, Eberhardt’s research has shown. White people who viewed fleeting images of black faces, for instance, were able to recognize the fuzzy outline of a gun more quickly than their peers who were exposed to white faces.
When Eberhardt reversed the experiment, the association between blacks and crime moved the other way. She subliminally exposed subjects to crime-related objects, followed by a longer-lasting screen showing a black face and a white face. Afterward, subjects were asked to quickly identify where a dot flashed on a blank screen. Their reactions were much quicker when the dot appeared on the side where the black face had been. The same held true when police officers took the test and saw crime-related words such as “capture” or “pursue” instead of images of weapons.
Eberhardt believes these free-flowing associations can infect the judicial system with bias. Her statistical studies have shown, for example, that having stereotypically black facial features correlates with tougher jury verdicts, longer prison terms, more death sentences and erroneous identifications by police.
Sometimes, her lessons come home. When her oldest son was in the first grade, he wondered whether blacks might have an invisible force field around them. After all, he told her, white people shied away when a black man came into the local Safeway.
The same son (she has three), now in high school, was pulled over recently in an affluent neighborhood for allegedly speeding on his bicycle. Eberhardt and her husband, Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, have had to have “the talk” that African American parents routinely have with sons, about how interactions with police can quickly escalate to force, sometimes with deadly consequences.
It could be daunting to confirm bias in study after study, or see the subtle clockwork of racism evoked in brain scans. But Eberhardt pivots forward.
“It’s dispiriting, but at the same time I find myself hopeful,” she said. “Society is dictating how those brain structures are responding. There are certain things about society that we can improve and change, so to the extent that we do that, we change ourselves.”
Such change was what Eberhardt’s father had in mind when he used the savings from his postman’s salary and profits from a side business in antiques to move the family from the predominantly black Lee-Harvard neighborhood of Cleveland to suburban Beachwood. Jennifer Eberhardt started seventh grade in that predominantly white suburb, where she no longer felt insecure about telling friends that she loved school.
“The neighborhoods weren’t all that far apart; they were a bike ride away, but in many ways they were a world away,” she said. “I don’t know if I would’ve gone to college if I hadn’t moved. That, I think, really got me interested in race and inequality and how people can live so differently in different spaces.”
Eberhardt went on to the University of Cincinnati, then earned a doctorate at Harvard. She was an assistant professor at Yale before joining the Stanford faculty in 1998.
Until now, gaining tenure at Stanford was the highlight of her professional life. Then the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation called to say she had won the $625,000 grant, paid quarterly over five years with no strings attached.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have that feeling again. But receiving the award felt that way,” she said. “I’m very hopeful, motivated, honored. But I don’t know about the money yet.”