By Neil Gross
By Jennifer L. Eberhardt
Last winter a cellphone video of an encounter between a white plainclothes Boston police officer and a young black man made the rounds on social media. The man, identified by The Boston Globe as Keith Antonio, was on his way to a barbershop when he spotted a police car. Thinking he was about to be stopped, he hit record.
The officer, Zachary Crossen — beefy, with an expressive frown and a knitted gray and gold Boston Bruins hat — called to Antonio from the passenger seat, his window rolled down. “You’re not Kevin, by any chance, are you?” he asked.
Antonio replied, “No.”
“Of course,” Antonio said.
“What is your name?” Officer Crossen asked.
“Why do you want to know my name?” came the reply.
Things went downhill. Crossen and his partner got out of their car. Antonio apparently flipped them off. He began calling Crossen names. The officer pulled out his own cellphone to record and asked Antonio patronizing questions about whether he had a job.
No one ended up getting hurt, and Antonio, who hadn’t committed a crime, wasn’t arrested. But activists seized on the exchange. It was evidence, they said, of the hostile treatment African-Americans continue to receive from the police, even in cities like Boston, known for progressive values. Would a young white man have been accosted in the same way?
Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a psychologist at Stanford, doesn’t address the incident in “Biased,” her unexpectedly poignant overview of the research on cognitive biases and stereotypes, especially racial bias in criminal justice. But it’s no stretch to think that she would see bias at play.
The biases that most interest Eberhardt aren’t overtly racist beliefs. She doesn’t doubt that white supremacists are still among us (and she devotes a chapter to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017). But in light of the fact that public opinion surveys show a decline in racist attitudes over the past few decades, while the unequal treatment of people of color stubbornly persists, Eberhardt focuses on a more likely culprit: unconscious prejudice.
As Eberhardt describes it, the human brain is a categorization machine. Our cognitive systems continuously sort the elements of our perception into categories and subcategories so that we can function effectively in the world. That thing walking up to us now? It’s a dog, medium-size, with a wagging tail. We use our prior experience with and cultural knowledge of categories to form expectations about what’s going to happen next. Those expectations influence our behavior. If our brains didn’t apply categorical knowledge, usually before we’ve had a chance to consciously reflect, we’d experience everything as if for the first time. We’d be flummoxed by the simplest task.
The problem is that when we live in a society divided by race, gender, class or some other category, our brains learn those social groupings, too, and apply them to order our perceptual field, even when they are more arbitrary than real, even when the “knowledge” attached is a pernicious stereotype and even if we’re committed to equality. This is implicit bias.
Eberhardt gives striking examples from her research of how racial categories and stereotypes affect perception. In one study, she and her colleagues found that people’s brains were more active when they were looking at a face from someone of their own racial group. This, Eberhardt says, helps to explain why people sometimes do poorly at recognizing individuals from other groups — a finding that matters for criminal justice, where mistaken identification is common.