Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s powerful 2019 book Biased has been where I turned over the past week when I had wanted to read more than New Yorker cartoons or internet comment boards. And it has been worth the investment of time.
As an African American scientist helping to teach and train groups as disparate as the Oakland Police Department, prisoners in the San Quentin penitentiary, and Silicon Valley tech companies, Dr. Eberhardt is helping us understand the way that prejudice hides below the surface of polite society yet shapes so much of what we see, think, and do. She calls on the latest neuroscience to track how our brains develop, react, and think. Then she lays out stories and studies that establish the pervasiveness of unconscious bias, even in those of us who work to fight tendencies toward prejudice.
The widely-hailed book looks at bias against a range of individuals and communities, yet Dr. Eberhardt speaks most often about our prejudice towards African Americans. “In this country,” she writes, “blacks have become a reminder of the racial bias that we refuse to see. Indeed, blacks have become symbolic of the unwanted.”
Many of Eberhardt’s stories are personal, including the “you can’t make this up” episode of being with a female friend when she was pulled over, handcuffed, and arrested by a group of white cops in Boston. The police showed up with five cruisers for Eberhardt’s “crime” of having a slightly expired license plate on her car…the day before she was to carry the flag for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences during Harvard’s 1993 commencement exercises!
So the race researcher was seeing first-hand what bias looks like the day before she received her PhD and was recognized for her exceptional work at one of the country’s top universities. She used her one call from jail to reach out to the Dean of the Graduate School. After a short (and probably spirited) conversation with the officer in charge, Eberhardt and her friend were released without having to post bail (showing the all too infrequent occurrence for blacks of having someone in power vouch for them when they are arrested.) Eberhardt and her friend did have to go to court a few days later, however, where the judge became more and more incredulous as she read the police report. “It’s not against the law to sit in the car” she thundered from the bench, before banging her gavel to signal that all the charges were dismissed.
Biased is, in many ways, a troubling read. But Eberhardt spends the last half of this very accessible book thinking through concrete ways out of our challenges in the areas of housing, elementary and higher education, and employment practices. Her examples come from real life, and it is clear why she co-founded her research lab at Stanford as a “do tank” as opposed to a “think tank.” This recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship is interested in bringing together practitioners and researchers to address real social issues.
Near the end of the book, Dr. Eberhardt notes that, “It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more. When something is regarded as the norm, people cease to judge it as harshly.”
“Bias is not something we exhibit and act on all the time,” she continues. Instead, it is conditioned, so we begin to battle bias by understanding the conditions — especially speed and ambiguity — under which bias is likely to come alive. The hopeful message of this book is that “we all have the capacity to make change — within ourselves, in the world, and in our relationship to that world.”
As I completed Biased, I began watching the five-hour PBS series Asian Americans. The series, which is available for streaming on the PBS video app, examines the significant role of Asian Americans in shaping American history and identity.
The story of prejudice against Asian Americans harkens back to bias against other people of color in the United States. In our understanding of American history, we too often forget (or never knew) that Asian Americans were lynched with the same type of “mob justice” applied primarily in the South against African Americans. The Chinese Americans who helped build the trans-continental railroad were omitted from pictures and histories at the time. More of us may know of the Japanese internment camps of WWII, but we turn our gaze from the atrocities committed there in our name. I found that my buried memories of the LA riots following the acquittal of the murderers of Rodney King and the subsequent burning of Koreatown were resurrected by this documentary.
The story of the Asian American contributions to this country are varied and remarkable. Contributions in construction, engineering, and technology are well chronicled by now. What is less appreciated is the role Asian Americans have played in the push for equality and justice.
As much as I valued the stories of overcoming challenges to realize the American Dream, I found myself drawn even more to other accounts of how the children and descendants of those who lived in the internment camps are now fighting the horrible separation of families at the southern boarder by the Trump administration.
How Filipino immigrants joined with Mexican farmers to fight injustice for migrant workers in California in the 1960s.
How Korean American and African American activists are working together in LA to overcome the fears and misunderstandings that led to the burning of Koreatown.
How Asian American comics are using laughter to force all of us to think beyond our comfort levels.
There is so much to consider in these two important works. Both are excellent, worthy of your time, and highly recommended.
More to come.