Fighting Racial Bias in an Age of Mass Murder

Fighting Racial Bias in an Age of Mass Murder

As avowed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields pleaded guilty Wednesday to 29 counts of hate crimes in a federal court for plowing his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville in August of 2017, we look at a new book that addresses the tragic event, as well as the rising number of race-based mass shootings, hate crimes and police shootings of unarmed men in the past several years. It also examines cases of discrimination against African Americans for simply sitting in coffee shops or trying to vacation in Airbnb-hosted homes. Professor Jennifer Eberhardt is the author of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do about how implicit bias impacts everything from hate crimes to microaggressions in the workplace, school and community, and what we can do about it. Eberhardt is a professor of psychology at Stanford and a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end the show with the news out of Virginia, where avowed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields pleaded guilty Wednesday to 29 counts of hate crimes in a federal court for plowing his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville in August 2017. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. Last December, a Virginia jury sentenced Fields to life in prison for his violent act, which killed anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer and injured 28 others at a counterprotest of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a new book that addresses the tragic events in Charlottesville, as well as the rising number of race-based mass shootings, hate crimes, police shootings of unarmed men in the past several years. It also looks at cases of discrimination against African Americans for simply sitting in coffee shops or trying to vacation at Airbnb-hosted homes. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do examines how implicit bias impacts everything from hate crimes to microaggressions in the workplace, school and community, and what we can do about it.

The book’s author, professor Jennifer Eberhardt, writes, quote, “In Charlottesville, [bias] ripped through the pact we’ve made to pretend that blatant bigotry is a relic of the past. In truth, bias has been biding its time in an implicit world—in a place where we need not acknowledge it to ourselves or to others, even as it touches our soul and drives our behavior.”

We’re joined right now by Jennifer Eberhardt, professor of psychology at Stanford University, recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor. It’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on the release of your book this week. Bryan Stevenson, who spearheaded the Legacy Museum—

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —where we just went, in Montgomery, Alabama—

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —calls your book “groundbreaking.” You know, the subtitle of Biased, Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, hardly relates to Charlottesville, in the sense that “hidden prejudice” was not the issue there.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: But connect the two. Talk about what you thought as you watched what unfolded at the University of Virginia.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, I mean, so, this Unite the Right rally was the largest public gathering of white supremacists in a generation. I think it took a lot of people by surprise. They were there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the core of the city. And, you know, so they were there to start a race war, according to them.

And there were counterprotesters there who showed up to try to protect the city and protect their values, and lots of clashes during that rally, and a lot of just, I think, concern about the role of the police with that, in just not— standing back and not intervening as people were being beaten and taunted and so forth. And it kind of, I don’t know, led to a lot of people in the city of Charlottesville and on the UVAcampus to sort of think about how this happened and why it happened and why was this, you know, the sort of ground zero for that movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how does that tie in, such explicit, manifest of racism, with your idea of unconscious, implicit bias?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, I think it ties in if we—I think, well, a couple things. I think people think a lot about, you know, sort of bigotry rising up when we have economic insecurity or instability. But there’s research showing that it’s not just that. It’s also the changing racial demographics in this country. And that makes people fearful. That makes them nervous. There’s research by Jennifer Richeson and Maureen Craig showing that just reminding white Americans of that changing racial dynamic or the changing racial landscape can lead them to express more prejudice against people of color, to feel like discrimination against whites is on the rise and that’s the big problem, and to also endorse more politically conservative views and policies. So, it’s not just the economic issue, why we get this move towards more explicit bias or old-fashioned racism; it’s also this concern about, like, losing your presence and your status in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, President Trump did not tweet about Fields yesterday pleading guilty to a hate crime. But this morning he did tweet. He tweeted, ”FBI & DOJ to review the outrageous Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. It is an embarrassment to our Nation!” This has captured the media over the last few days—

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —the Chicago prosecutors dropping the 16 felony charges against Jussie Smollett for arranging a hate crime against him—that’s what they charged him with.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: He did some community service, forfeited his $10,000 bond, and they’ve dropped all the charges. So, Trump tweeted about this.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But on this issue of the white supremacist killer, he didn’t say a word. Can you make a segue from one to the other, and what your thoughts are on Smollett?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Right. So, as a social scientist, I’m not, you know, looking at an isolated case and sort of trying to make claims about that, one way or the other. I think that case is still unfolding, too, and so I’m not sure how all of that will end up.

But what I could say is that we know that our—leadership matters, in terms of people’s willingness to express a bias. I think also the social norms matter. There’s a lot of research on that, actually. So, when social norms shift so that we’rebecoming sort of less egalitarian, that leads—you know, sort of individuals, it gives them license to express more bias. And so, it’s not just about a choice that we’re making as individuals to be biased or not. It’s also about the social climate. We’re social beings, and so we’re sensitive to what the social climate is. And to the extent that the social climate is moving away from being egalitarian, that can feed our bias. And that can lead implicit biases actually to become explicit, because there is a context for that. There’s a way in which that’s welcomed. And so, those social norms can lead us to actually become more prejudiced and to act on those prejudices.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you explain what goes into constituting implicit bias?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: So, implicit bias can be defined as the beliefs and the feelings that we have about social groups, that can influence our decision-making and our actions, even when we’re unaware of it. And so, you know, it’s sort of biases that exist despite how we see ourselves as egalitarian, say, or biases that can exist despite our intentions and our motivations to act otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book, Biased, with the story of your 5-year-old son.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about what happened.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: So, yeah. So, we were on a plane together. And he’s 5, and so he’s looking around and just really excited about being on an airplane with mom. And so he’s checking everybody out. And he sees this guy, and he says, “Hey, that guy looks like daddy.” And, you know, I look at the guy. First of all, he doesn’t look anything at all like daddy, and it turns out that he was the only black guy on the plane. And so, I’m thinking, “OK, my son obviously thinks that all black people look alike,” right? So I’m going to try to have a conversation with him about that.

But before I could have that conversation, he looks up at me, and he says, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.” And I said, “What? What did you say?” And he said it again: “Well, I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.” And I said, “Everett, why would you say that? And you know daddy wouldn’t rob a plane.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” And I said, “Well, why would you say that?” And he looked at me with this really sad face, and he said, “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.”

AMY GOODMAN: You later talk about your son being a target of racial bias.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Yeah, I do. I mean, so that son, the 5-year-old, is now 17. And so he’s growing into a man, a young man. And so, you know, people sort of experience him with the same kind of, sort of—you know, his presence triggers those same kinds of thoughts. And he’s becoming aware of that, over time, and aware that he could be seen as a threat in the eyes of others.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, is there any way to overcome implicit bias?

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, you know, it’s not something that we can just overcome and get rid of completely. And that’s something that I write about in the book, Biased, that I think we keep thinking we’ll get to the day where we’ll be done with this, we don’t have to worry about it. And the fact is, is that we have to be sort of constantly vigilant around it. So, even when we can push it down with our laws and we can push it down with our social norms and we can be motivated—right?—to work on it, it’s something that we have to be vigilant about all the time, because it could spring up again. Social conditions can allow it to surface again. So there are some situations that really sort of promote bias more than others. And as social scientists, we know a lot about those situations. So, to the extent that we can manage those situations, you know, we can—the better, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t need you to tell me who you’re going to vote for in 2020.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: But I do want to ask you to comment on B-boys. That’s Bernie, Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Beto. OK, they’re called the “B-boys.”

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: They’re all white—

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: All right.

AMY GOODMAN: —men. There are a number of people of color and women who are running for president, but they are getting much more attention, these four white men. Your thoughts? What does the media need to learn? We have 30 seconds.

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Well, I mean, I think maybe we can have a discussion about who people think of as leaders—right?—sort of who do we associate with leaders. And leadership tends to be associated with men, and leadership tends to be associated with people who are white and powerful. And so, to the extent that you have inconsistency there between what a person looks like and what social group they belong to and what they’re trying to do, that’s hard for us to wrap our minds around.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2 and put it online at democracynow.org. Jennifer Eberhardt, professor of psychology at Stanford University, author of the new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.