I had the opportunity to attend a short lecture and Question and Answer session with Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford and preeminent scholar on race. She has conducted several psychological/sociological studies examining our perceptions of race and how they affect everyday things. Most importantly, she conducted many studies with the aim of examining the connections between our perceptions of race and crime, and how these could translate to issues within the justice system at nearly every level: particularly policing and sentencing/prosecution, along with the effects in other fields such as law and medicine. Eberhardt gave a presentation that explained briefly the studies she conducted, as well as their implications for further study.
For example, she conducted a study in which the participants (Stanford undergrads) were primed with visuals of different faces, white and black, and then had to complete a series of visual tests in which they had a very short amount of time to identify whether or not objects were weapons or non-threatening. Those who were primed with black faces more quickly identified weapons correctly, whereas those who were primed with white faces took longer to identify a weapon for what it was. These results were the same regardless of the race of the participants. Eberhardt conducted another test in which she sought to understand whether or not skin color was the only indicator that we use to identify race. She exposed participants to videos in which figures performed the same actions, and asked them which race the figures were. Most people were able to correctly identify the race of the figure despite the fact that skin color and features were entirely unknown. Lastly, she conducted a study in which she had participants play the game “shoot/don’t shoot,” in which they had to decide in a very short amount of time whether or not the person on the screen was holding a weapon or a non-threatening object. She had normal participants play this game and also police officers. Unfortunately she found that participants were more likely to mistakenly shoot black people with non-threatening weapons than they were to mistakenly shoot white people.
In general, the results were not terribly surprising. They were consistent with the idea that people have ingrained, often subliminal perceptions of race that create unconscious biases, especially when they pertain to race and crime. Thus, people can assume that they are not “racist,” and that they do not discriminate against people based on race, but it is clear from these studies that people do harbor these perceptions whether or not they are conscious of them. This issue is particularly relevant to the issue of environmental justice because it can help explain the ways in which people do not necessarily intentionally discriminate against people in terms of forcing them to live in more highly polluted areas, denying them housing, etc. The fact that people of color routinely face harsher conditions that are related to environmental issues is in part, intentional, but can also be attributed to these unconscious biases that affect the way we think about race and thus the way we treat people.