Jennifer Eberhardt says the MacArthur fellowship will allow her to expand her research on race and the criminal justice system. (Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Stanford’s Jennifer Eberhardt has been named one of the 2014 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. A social psychologist, she studies the racial elements in the perceptions of crime.
BY CLIFTON B. PARKER
Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, who studies race and the law, has been named one of the 2014 fellows of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The fellowships, given to scholars for their achievement and potential, include a $625,000 stipend over five years. The honors rank among the most prestigious prizes in academia and the creative arts. They are sometimes referred to as the “genius” awards.
“I feel it gives me the space to pursue my research with new energy and motivation,” Eberhardt said. “It reaffirms how important the issues of race and inequality are in the legal system.”
When the foundation initially contacted her to inform her that she was named a fellow, Eberhardt was overwhelmed.
“I had no inkling, no idea they were considering me. It felt like a pivotal moment in my life.”
When the awards were publicly announced Tuesday night, Eberhardt received numerous calls and emails from colleagues, friends and family. “I think I had only a couple hours of sleep,” she chuckled. Thursday promised to be even busier – in addition to the MacArthur media inquiries, she was due to give two different presentations on racial disparities to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“But I feel good and have the energy,” Eberhardt said. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”
Joined Stanford in 1998
Since she arrived on campus in 1998, Eberhardt has examined the role that racial stereotypes play in the criminalization of African-Americans. She joined the Stanford faculty after teaching at Yale University, and is currently an associate professor in psychology and co-director of SPARQ, a university initiative that addresses social problems.
Her colleague Greg Walton, a Stanford assistant professor of psychology, said that Eberhardt’s research has vital social significance. “In helping understand our minds, Jennifer’s research helps us see the kinds of changes we need to make in society to help give all people a fair shot,” he said.
A first-generation college graduate from Cleveland, Ohio, Eberhardt said that her parents instilled in her a love of education. She witnessed the disparity in education in the different neighborhoods where she grew up, and soon fell in love with learning. Her late father, Harlan, a postal mail worker, “understood the power of education,” she said.
And her late mother, Mary, was inspired enough by her daughter’s collegiate success – she earned a doctorate from Harvard – to go to college herself at midlife.
“Education is transformational,” Eberhardt said.
Now, the MacArthur fellowship will greatly expand her research plans and resources to connect with real-world policy. “I hope to work with more law enforcement agencies and do things off the beaten path,” Eberhardt said, noting that she’s currently engaged with the Oakland Police Department on the analysis of racial profiling data. “Many of the (law enforcement) agencies collect the data but often don’t know what to do with it,” she said.
As Eberhardt pointed out, although African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of America’s population, they represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison inmates.
Her statistical analysis has shown that police officers are more likely to identify African-American faces than white faces as criminal. In one experimental study, people who were exposed to black faces were then more likely to identify a blurry image as a gun than those who were exposed to white faces or no faces.
Eberhardt plans to combine social psychological insights with technology to improve outcomes in the criminal justice context and elsewhere.
“I’m hopeful to bring about real social change,” she said.