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Facing Down Stereotypes

If you doubt that discrimination on the basis of appearance can have serious ramifications, studies on racial stereotyping by associate professor of psychology Jennifer Eberhardt offer chilling examples.

Eberhardt has examined unconscious assumptions about appearance that link black faces with criminality. In one study, Eberhardt showed participants pictures of black or white faces, then a series of blurry images that progressively became clearer. Some images were of crime-related objects such as guns and handcuffs. Participants indicated when they could identify the objects—and those who had seen black faces first identified crime objects faster.

Another test exposed people to crime-related words or images. "Then we gave them two faces to look at on the computer screen simultaneously, a black face and a white face," Eberhardt says. "We were interested in whether previous exposure to the crime objects would direct their eyes to the black faces—and that's what we found." Police officers who participated in the experiment were asked to pick the faces they'd seen in the study from a lineup. When officers made mistakes, "they chose a more stereotypically black face than the face that they actually saw," Eberhardt says.

In a study reviewing a set of capital-punishment cases, she found that African-American defendants with more stereotypically black features—which the study defined as including dark skin, a broad nose or thick lips—"were more than twice as likely to end up with a death sentence as opposed to a life sentence," compared to other black defendants, she says. Because people unconsciously associate blackness and crime, she says, "The more black you are, the more criminal people think of you as being."

Eberhardt says unconscious bias is not necessarily motivated by racial animus. "In all of the studies where we actually looked at people's racial attitudes to see whether those added to—or mattered—for the effects that we got, we found nothing," says Eberhardt. "You don't need hatred in order for these associations to take hold."

If people pay more attention to black faces after being primed to think about crime, Eberhardt says, that's relevant to racial profiling—because police officers whose job is to think about crime are "going to be drawn to black faces more so than white faces." Similarly, she says, the lineup study "has implications for eyewitness identification, that people who look more stereotypically black are more vulnerable to being falsely identified."

As for the death-penalty study, she says, "You shouldn't have to pay with your life for looking more stereotypically black. That's not a crime."

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