A social psychologist “investigating the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people” has been named one of 21 2014 fellows of the MacArthur Foundation, the charitable organization announced today.
Jennifer L. Eberhardt, 49, an associate professor at Stanford University and co-director of the university’s SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions) center, will receive $625,000 to spend any way she wishes as part of recognition popularly known as the “Genius Award.” She told the San Francisco Chronicle she’s still figuring out what to do with the money; “”I really want to be able to improve police and community relations. That’s what I would love to do. It’s so important.”
According to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, recipients are “”talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.” Individuals cannot apply for the fellowship, and nominations made by other parties are kept confidential. Eberhardt is the sole social scientist so honored this year.
Eberhardt’s work has paid particular attention to how race affects perceptions of crime.
As she wrote two years ago for The New York Times (with Aneeta Rattan):
In our own work, we find that race can have a sweeping effect even when people consider the same crime. Prompting people to think of a single black (rather than white) juvenile offender leads them to express greater support for sentencing all juveniles to life without parole when they have committed serious violent crimes. Thinking about a black juvenile offender also makes people imagine that juveniles are closer to adults in their blameworthiness. Remarkably, this was true for both people who were low in prejudice and those who were high in prejudice and for both liberals and conservatives.
This line of inquiry has produced a host of disturbing revelations, as detailed in the MacArthur citation for Eberhardt:
These associations also influence the extent to which individuals are able to discern—literally, to perceive—important visual details in crime-related imagery, as well as distinguishing features in African American faces. Using statistical analysis to analyze how a defendant’s skin color and hair texture relate to the sentencing decisions of jurors, Eberhardt has shown that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty if their facial characteristics are stereotypically black and their victims are white. Extending this research to the criminal sentencing of juveniles, she found that simply bringing to mind a black juvenile offender led people to perceive juveniles in general as more similar to adults and therefore more worthy of severe punishment, highlighting the fragility of protection for young defendants when race is a factor. She also has examined implicit bias among law enforcement, showing that, for example, police officers are more likely to mistakenly identify African American faces as criminal than white faces; in addition, officers are more likely to judge faces that are the most stereotypically black as the most likely to be criminal.
Her efforts have pushed beyond cataloging problems and into designing solutions. For example, she is working with law enforcement agencies like the Oakland, California police department to both improve their policing and help build and maintain trust with the communities they serve. In the academy, the foundation noted, she is working with anthropologists to better articulate the process of cognitive dehumanization that occurs to justify marginalizing and discriminatory practices.
Eberhardt received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati before earning a master’s and PH.D. at Harvard. Before coming to Stanford in 1998, she held a joint faculty position at Yale University’s departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies and was a research fellow at the Center for Race, Inequality, and Politics.