When Being Black is Considered a Crime: A Social Psychologist Studying Racial Stereotyping Receives a MacArthur “Genius Award”


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Jennifer Eberhardt

Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University, was among the 21 recipients of the 2014 MacArthur Foundation “genius award.”   The annual MacArthur Fellowships are awarded for creativity in science, humanities, arts and social service.

Eberhardt has conducted a series of experiments to show how unconscious racial stereotypes can result in the criminalization of African-Americans. Using images of faces and objects flashed across a screen at speeds that range from subliminal to perceptible, Eberhardt discovered that subliminal exposure to a black face led subjects to more easily detect blurry images of weapons. Conversely, a white face inhibited detection of such objects.

Her statistical analysis also showed that the more “black” a defendant looks — as measured by skin color, hair texture and lip size — the more likely it was that the defendant would receive the death penalty if the case involved a white victim.

Her research also shows that police officers are more likely to judge as criminals those whose faces are the most stereotypically black. In a telephone interview with the New York Times she said, “It’s almost as if people are thinking of blackness as a crime.”

Her paper, Race and the Fragility of the Legal Distinction between Juveniles and Adults, published in 2012, demonstrated that, “simply bringing to mind a Black (vs. White) juvenile offender led participants to view juveniles in general as significantly more similar to adults in their inherent culpability and to express more support for severe sentencing. Indeed, these differences in participants’ perceptions of this foundational legal precedent distinguishing between juveniles and adults accounted for their greater support for severe punishment. These results highlight the fragility of protections for juveniles when race is in play. Furthermore, we suggest that this fragility may have broad implications for how juveniles are seen and treated in the criminal justice system.”

Eberhardt’s work demonstrates that dealing with criminal justice issues – from stop-and-frisk and condom confiscation to HIV criminalization - requires an intersectional approach that takes racial and ethnic prejudice into account.