What causes racial bias? Should we fight it or ignore it?
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do
5 stars *****
Having grown up during the days of civil rights demonstrations and Martin Luther King, I had thought that we had come a longer way on race. Schools seem less segregated, interracial couples are not a huge deal anymore, and we elected a black president in 2008. The new rise of hate groups and racism since President Obama was elected makes me wonder if we've made any progress at all. There's been some progress, but as white people begin to feel more threatened, we've all fallen backwards on race.
According to polls, 55% of white people honestly believe that they are victims of racial discrimination. They hear about minorities getting preferential treatment anecdotally and globalize it as happening everywhere. Confirmation bias keeps them from even seeing the everyday biases that people of color face. White voters gave Donald Trump a huge 57-37 advantage in the 2016 election based on this anger and fear of being displaced. As a white person myself, I am not perfect by any means and I've struggled with our history of oppression and blindness to the bias that we take for granted against racial minorities.
Jennifer Eberhardt is one of the nation's foremost authorities on racial bias. She has a doctorate in psychology and has conducted numerous studies, detailed in this book, of how prevalent our racial biases are even if we won't admit it. In her book, Dr. Eberhardt goes back into the history of American racial biases and explores how we got here and what we can do about it.
The huge takeaway for me from this book is that we should give up trying to be a color-blind society. Corporations, governments, and other large groups try to pretend race doesn't exist and produce lofty mission statements that tout diversity, inclusion, and color-blind policies. Despite these policies and statements, racial biases still exist, twisting our views of law and order, politics, housing and education. Instead, the author asks people to accept the obvious- that races exist and our brains are wired to notice them. Not only that but our brains come up with shortcuts and stereotypes on an unconscious level that guide our everyday behavior without us noticing them. Acknowledging these biases robs them of their power over us. The second step after acknowledging race is accepting it and moving on. African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Caucasians all look differently and sometimes have different behaviors. Our brains are strong enough to move beyond the stereotypes, but we have to make an effort to do so.
This book is full of depressing tales of the harmful effects that can result from racial discrimination. The author uses scientific studies to show how unconscious racial bias shows up in all sorts of situations. Jennifer Eberhardt, an African-American woman, speaks from her own experiences of racial bias, including an arrest after being pulled over by a white policeman. She interviews several experts in the field and goes into detail about recent events like the Charlottesville protests and Terrence Crutcher shooting to bring the stories and emotions alive. She taught a class inside of San Quentin prison and the details from her students and their views on race are very touching.
Here are a few other takeaways that made me think:
- We are wired to pay more attention to the faces of people of our own race.
- People often overestimate the threats posed by black people and their movements, which is why police are quicker to shoot in ambiguous situations with a black suspect. Officers are less polite, less friendly and less respectful in encounters with black motorists than white ones.
- There's something called a "I have black friends" hall pass that seems to give white people moral justification for treating most minorities poorly.
- Going back into the 19th century there were many experts who believed that black people were genetically inferior, often comparing them to apes. This ape comparison lives on today.
- Housing has been segregated for centuries, and even today homes that were owned by black families are deemed less valuable than those owned by whites.
- Even vacation housing still discriminates against black people, as sites like Airbnb have discovered people refusing to agree to black families staying in their rentals.
- People of color have found that job resumes that identify them as not white are much less likely to result in callbacks. Algorithms look for ethnic names, activities that signal race, and even zip code information. In order to combat this discrimination people are being forced to "whiten" their resumes to make themselves look more acceptable to employers.
Dr. Eberhardt has some good suggestions to combat discrimination including procedural justice training for police departments. This training focuses on everyday interactions and getting police officers more used to dealing in person with people of other races that live in their communities. Combatting fear with exposure is a tried and true psychological tool. She also touts a "wise feedback" approach in schools that lets students know that high expectations, not racial biases, are behind all the critiques they get from teachers.
As a white person, I can't even begin to feel how dehumanizing it must be to have your character questioned at every turn because of the color of your skin. How must if feel to be afraid of the police, who are supposed to be there to protect you? White privilege is a thing, and I find it sad that some whites are now playing the victim. Life is hard no matter what color your skin. The best part of Biased is where the author calls out the cowardly pose of color-blindness. Color exists, and the sooner we recognize it, appreciate it, and get over it, the sooner we all figure out how to live together in harmony.