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The Startling Ways Our Brains Process Racial Difference

Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD

Mar 20 2019

Posted In:

Faculty, In the News

We all know it’s harder to ID people of different races, but our bias goes so much deeper

The Asian women were easy targets. They were a group the robbers predicted would not resist: middle-aged, frail, unfamiliar with English, and — crucially — unable to identify the black teenagers who snatched the purses from their arms.

It was 2014, and I had just begun analyzing data on racial disparities in policing with the Oakland Police Department when this story made its rounds. This is part of my work at Stanford University, where I study the psychology of racial bias. The police developed leads in this spate of strong-arm robberies, made arrests, and even recovered some stolen property. But the cases fell apart before the suspects could be prosecuted because even if a victim had seen the robber’s face as he grabbed her purse and ran, none of the women could pick the culprits out of a police lineup. The Asian women could not tell the African-American men apart.

The challenge of cross-racial identification is well known; but it’s just one example of the many ways our brains work to categorize racial groups. Categorization — grouping like things together — is a universal function of the brain that allows us to organize and manage the overload of stimuli that constantly bombard us. It’s a product not only of our personal experience and social messaging but also of our evolution as human beings.

But categorization also can impede our efforts to embrace and understand people who are deemed not like us by heightening our response to the faces of people who look like us and dampening our sensitivity to those who don’t. This is important because our awareness of racial categories can determine what we see in our day-to-day world, not just in the research laboratory.