In February of 2012, a seventeen year old African-American boy named Trayvon Martin was walking back to his father’s home in Sanford, Florida, when George Zimmerman, captain of the Neighbourhood Watch, saw him and called 911 to report a “suspicious person”. Despite being told by the 911 operator not to get out of his car, Zimmerman pulled over and began following Martin on foot. An altercation ensued, and Martin was shot and killed. Despite the fact that Martin was unarmed, it took nearly 2 months before Zimmerman was charged with a crime. Roughly a year later, he was acquitted of all charges.
A year later, Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African-American from Ferguson, Missouri, was shot six times by a white police officer. Like Trayvon Martin, he was unarmed, and like Trayvon Martin, he died as a result of the altercation. This time, however, his killer wasn’t even charged with a crime because the jury opted not to indict. Less than a month later, a grand jury in Staten Island was faced with a similar decision when determining whether or not to indict another white police officer who killed an African-American man; this time, a 43-year-old husband and father of six named Eric Garner. In this case, Garner was also unarmed, but he was not shot. Instead, after resisting an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes, he was placed in an illegal chokehold. Despite the medical examiner ruling the death a homicide that resulted from the compression of his neck, like the grand jury in Ferguson, they opted not to indict.
In the year since Michael Brown’s death, 24 more unarmed black men were shot and killed by the police in America. These deaths have led to an increasingly tense relationship between police and the African-American community, as well as increased concerns about the way that race influences the American justice system. In a society where African-Americans are disproportionately charged, convicted, and imprisoned, not to mention 7 times more likely to be shot while unarmed than their white counterparts, investigations into the relationship between race and the justice system are pressing.
In a society in desperate need of answers and solutions, Jennifer Eberhardt is an exceptional source of both. A Harvard-educated psychology professor at Stanford University and a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant, Jennifer has spent her career investigating race relations, implicit racial bias, and its impact on our justice system. Her groundbreaking research has brought to light numerous insights regarding biases in our juries and our police departments, and she has shown that these biases extend outside of these systems and into the general populace as well.
In a study on death row convicts, Jennifer and her team found that African-American defendants with traditionally “black” features (wider noses, darker skin color, etc.) were more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty, even when controlling for other variables like aggression and severity of the crime.
In a study on the relationship between race and weapon perception, Jennifer exposed participants to a series of subliminal images before showing them blurry images of a variety of items, some of which were crime-related. Those images were slowly brought into focus, and then she measured how quickly the participants could identify the items. What she found was that participants who were subliminally exposed to images of black faces were able to identify crime-related weaponry (guns, knives, etc.) significantly faster than those who had been subliminally exposed to the white faces.
In a similarly alarming study, Jennifer and her team had participants play a video game where they were asked to press “shoot” when shown a picture of a person holding a gun and “don’t shoot” when shown a picture of a person holding something harmless. The study showed that participants shot more quickly when the person holding the gun was black, and they were also more likely to shoot a black person holding something harmless than they were to shoot a white person holding something harmless.
These studies highlight several implicit racial biases that may help explain why African-Americans are convicted at higher rates and given harsher sentences than white defendants, as well as why so many of these recent conflicts have had such tragic outcomes. They can also be used to help us overcome these biases and create a safer, fairer system. Jennifer is working with police departments, helping them better understand these implicit biases. As she explains, “I don’t think this alone can change behavior. But it can help people become aware of the unconscious ways race operates. If you combine that with other things, there is hope.”