About a year ago, the world was shaken by disturbing footage of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, leading to his death. Riots and protests broke out, with people suggesting the death was a product of deep systemic racism within the criminal justice system. Floyd became a global symbol of the need for change and criminal justice reform. Recently, officer Derek Chauvin was deemed guilty of the second-degree murder of George Floyd, among other charges.
On the back of growing activism, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s insights into the unconscious racial bias present in the criminal justice system seems more relevant than ever. Racial stereotypes impact how we treat others. Unfortunately, oftentimes, stereotypes about Black people have dangerous and deadly consequences. For example, people believe that Black men are frequently involved with criminal activity, and therefore, Black men are likely to be treated differently by law enforcement. White police officers, who are trained to look for danger, come to associate Blackness with criminality, and perceive danger even where there is none.8
By analyzing data from police departments and national crime statistics, Eberhardt found that as a result of their implicit bias, police officers are significantly more likely to stop black people for ‘furtive movement’ (fidgety behavior that sometimes indicates nervousness) and more likely to kill unarmed African-Americans than unarmed white people.8 Evidently, acting nervous around police officers becomes an understandable vicious cycle with each additional innocent Black person’s death dominating national headlines.
Racial profiling and bias do not stop with police officers. Through her 2012 research, Eberhardt also found that people in the courtroom are influenced by unconscious prejudice towards Black people. The race of the defendant influences whether the jury believes they are to blame and the length and severity of their sentence.8
Specifically, Eberhardt found that if the victim and defendant in a criminal case are both Black, the jury tends to see the issue as an interpersonal one caused by differences in personal values, rather than a serious intergroup conflict.9 In other words, the case is belittled. When the race of the victim and defendant are different, however, the jury more often recognizes the issue as more than a personal squabble.
When the victim is white, Eberhardt also found that the race of the defendant impacts their likelihood of receiving the death penalty. People who fit racial stereotypes have double the chance of receiving the death penalty than those who look less Black. This ‘stereotypicality effect’ was only apparent when the victim was white, not if the Black defendant had killed a Black victim.10
Eberhardt’s research demonstrates that even when there seem to be fewer blatant bigots and explicitly racist views out there, subtle and implicit racial prejudices that have historically governed societal relations have not disappeared; they are unconsciously embedded in our perceptions of the world and those around us.