“Race, Crime, and Inequality”

2014 MacArthur Award Winner Jennifer Eberhardt, Stanford University.

2014 MacArthur Award Winner – Jennifer Eberhardt, Stanford University

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.

Revitalization or Replacement?

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This week, we read an article entitled, “Forgotten Area Between Atherton and Redwood City Seeks Revitalization,” written by a KQED contributor from the Peninsula Press. The article sought to explain to the readers where the neighborhood of North Fair Oaks was, that it had long been neglected as an unincorporated, densely packed pocket within the booming Bay Area/Silicon Valley area, and that it desperately needed development. The article detailed San Mateo County’s plans to “revitalize” the neighborhood by cutting the lanes down to two, widening the sidewalks, and putting in turning and bike lanes. The article generally supposes that these changes will be positive for the community, although it notes that some community and business members feel left out of the loop when it comes to the planning and approval of this project, which began to be planned a little over a year ago.

As a resident of this North Fair Oaks neighborhood for 18 years, I’m extremely skeptical of this newfound attention to the area. It seems to me that developers have finally realized that amidst the tech-boom and development of the Bay Area and its population boom, there are few pockets of undeveloped area left with potential for extremely valuable investment and land to be developed. However, the inevitability of the transformation of North Fair Oaks, or “Lil Mex,” as those familiar with it usually refer to it, from a neighborhood of generations of immigrants from Mexico with a vibrant community of small businesses, including one of the highest concentrations of Taquerias near and far, to a gentrified stretch of trendy big businesses to mirror the transformation of nearby Downtown Redwood City, looms very large. In the last 10 years or so, the downtown area of Redwood City has been “revitalized,” and what used to be a sleepy, historic district with small businesses and affordable housing is now beginning to resemble a metropolis, with giant new apartment buildings and tech company office high-rises taking over the already densely populated area. Traffic is terrible on weeknights, and there are few lanes other than the main road, Broadway, which travels from east Redwood City through downtown.

My fear is that the community of North Fair Oaks will have their “needs” addressed in such a way that attracts new attention to the area and begins a process of gentrification that renders it impossible for the community of Latinos to live there with their humble origins and current incomes. Furthermore, on the strictly environmental side of things, the cutting of four lanes to two will only increase traffic and smog in the area. In terms of food justice, many of the small Taquerias that feed the community there may be pushed out, and there may be decreasing access to affordable food that isn’t Jack in the Box or McDonalds.

“It doesn’t look like Atherton, but that’s okay.”

In terms of a proper approach to “revitalizing” this neighborhood, I’m not convinced it needs that much revitalizing. It doesn’t look like Atherton, but that’s okay. The brightly colored, small facades of the beauty salons and Taquerias look more like the places these residents came from, and it’s cruel to measure a neighborhood’s worth next to Atherton, an entirely white, extremely affluent suburb that is consistently ranked as the area with the highest median home prices in the entire country. If San Mateo County is concerned about North Fair Oaks, they can start by funneling more money into the schools, into tax breaks for the cash-strapped residents, or into building more affordable housing for those who are displaced by downtown’s recent boom, not simply giving the neighborhood a makeover so as to attract gentrifying outsiders.

The latter process of gentrification has been done already in Marsh Manor, a small shopping center 5 minutes away from this stretch of Middlefield, right by my house. Marsh Manor used to consist of small community businesses, like a pizza place, a Laundromat, a liquor store, a hair salon, a Taqueria, a bakery, a florist, and a market full of union employees who watched me grow up and knew my name for 18 years. Now the stores are slowly turning over as the owner realized the potential for Marsh Manor to draw Atherton and Menlo Park clientele: the market has been made over with all new ownership and employees, as well as renovations for a deli, parking lots are being bulldozed, the laundromat, liquor store, and pizza place are gone, replaced by a Brewery, a Gourmet Pet Food store, and an upper-scale Brunch restaurant. These places are not frequented by the community nearby, but by non-Redwood City residents attracted by the makeover.

In conclusion, I again express my fear that North Fair Oaks, which is really the last area of affordable living, including housing and living, in the Bay Area other than EPA, will soon by demolished by development prospects in the name of progress, and the entire community will slowly disappear.