Review of Biased

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Biased book summary




  • Well Structured
  • Bold
  • Concrete Examples

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Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a MacArthur Fellow, shows how stereotypes arise and how they work in the background to shape people’s perceptions and actions. In crisp language, using research studies as well as history lessons, she demonstrates that bias against African-Americans is pervasive and longstanding. Luckily for those seeking a more just world, she also illustrates ways that people can journey through the challenge of bigotry to an appreciation for diversity. Knowledge is the first step. Students, social scientists, businesspeople and those seeking greater mutual understanding will benefit from her insights.

Once your brain creates categories to sort impressions, it’s hard to change. Racial categories influence your perceptions.

Eberhardt says human brains evolved with a “same-race advantage,” a built-in bias that, she asserts, often leads to the misidentification of criminals if they’re from a different race than their victims.

She cites the tale of black teens snatching purses in Oakland’s Chinatown as an analogy. The teens knew middle-aged Chinese women thought they all looked alike and could not identify them. Black men stealing from Asian women led the women to generalize that all black men are dangerous. Humans rely on such categories to manage information. Over time, Eberhardt notes, categories fill with sensory perceptions, memories and knowledge that informs feelings and actions. Confirmation bias drives people to look for information that supports their beliefs. They don’t see facts that contradict what they think or that challenge their sense of self. She finds that this reinforces stereotypes and leads to “implicit bias.”

White Americans, the author reports, often associate African-Americans with aggression, and so they misinterpret black's facial expressions. Parents transmit biases to their children. When kids see someone being treated badly or without respect, they assume that person must be bad and must deserve poor treatment. 

A study showed participants silent clips from TV shows in which a white character interacted with another character who was out of the frame. Participants had to decide whether the character they could see liked the character they couldn’t see, based on the actor’s nonverbal cues. The majority of participants perceived unseen African-American characters as less likable. People’s anti-black bias rose after they viewed these clips. They unconsciously absorbed bias. “Bias determines who gets to shine,” the author writes, “who’s allowed to stand out, who is lauded for being a ‘disrupter’ and who is sidelined for being disruptive.”

While 99% of police interactions with civilians are nonviolent, police disproportionately target black people. Those encounters are more likely to end in a show of force.

Eberhardt details how, shockingly, police officers killed almost 1,000 people in the United States in 2016. In Minnesota, a policeman shot Philando Castile seven times in front of his four-year-old daughter and his girlfriend. The officer had pulled Castile over for a traffic stop. In 2014, a Cleveland police officer shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a park. The officer fired before even parking his car, and he paused to attend to his own twisted ankle while Rice bled to death. The officer was not charged with a crime. Such incidents sparked a movement to raise awareness of racial bias in law enforcement and to spotlight police militarization.

Eberhardt developed law enforcement training methods to combat implicit bias. She primed both officers and non-officers by showing them words related to criminal activity, andshe discovered that this caused them to focus their attention on a black face instead of a white one. Study participants see black bodies as bigger and more threatening than they are. Subjects who’ve been shown black faces more readily see objects related to crime – such as guns – come into focus on a computer. But police officers also saw items that were not crime-related come into focus accurately. To Eberhardt, this suggests that training can override the effects of implicit bias.

Police killings of unarmed people damage law enforcement’s relationship with black communities.

California mandates the collection of demographic data for every police interaction. Oakland residents advocated for this depth of record-keeping in the late 1990s when “vigilante cops” framed innocent people, assaulting and arresting them.

Eberhardt invites the reader into the saga of how her team analyzed 28,000 police stops between 2013 and 2014 and found that police disproportionately stopped black residents, who were then more likely to be arrested than white residents when stopped. Oakland law enforcement pointed out that black people were responsible for the majority of violent crimes in 2014. The police felt that their suspicions aligned with reality. Oakland police hear “male black” hundreds of times daily over their radios. They pair blackness and crime, and that subliminally affects their perceptions. Eberhardt’s on-the-ground research and profound immersion in these law enforcement issues grants her a particular credibility when she describes the emotions of police officers and those they stopped.

Young black men grow up fearing the police and learn to run at first sight of law enforcement personnel. The author explains that “procedural justice training” emphasizes community relations and de-emphasizes the number of police stops. This training encourages police officers to treat people with respect, which results in residents showing more respect to officers and complying more often with the law. “Research and real-life experience,” Eberhardt writes, “have shown that if officers act in accordance with four tenets – voice, fairness, respect, trustworthiness – residents will be more inclined to think of the police as legitimate authorities.”

A federal investigation after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, found local blacks suffered an undue burden due to “unlawful bias.”

Police stop black people twice as often as whites. Some departments use stops as a source of revenue. Eberhardt reports that body camera footage revealed that officers, even African-American officers, were less respectful to black drivers than to white drivers – thus demonstrating the insidious nature of bias. When minor traffic stops escalate, police charge the drivers with other offenses. After they are arrested, drivers must post bail, but the poor often can’t afford it.

Detention rates for blacks are four times higher than for whites, and their bail is 35% higher.

With great compassion and not a little outrage, Eberhardt chronicles how, when people are detained and imprisoned, their bills mount, their employers grow impatient, their landlords threaten to evict them and they lose custody of their children. These consequences make them desperate to strike any bargain for freedom, including entering a guilty plea, even if they are innocent. Then they must live with the consequences of a criminal conviction.

In the United States, 40% of those incarcerated are black, though African-Americans make up only 12% of the population. Incarceration rates have risen even though crime rates are down. The US rate of incarceration is the highest in the world. Prisons release 700,000 former prisoners annually, but most end up back in prison. Most repeat arrests, as detailed by Eberhardt, result from parole violations, such as missing an appointment or not paying a court fine. Two-thirds of prisons offer inmates no education or vocational training. Eberhardt’s frustration with outmoded penal policies comes to the fore when she reports that programs that ease ex-offenders’ re-entry into society are much less expensive than paying for another prison sentence.

“Scientific racism” that justified 19th-century slavery described black people as not quite human.

Eberdardt evokes the long history of justifications for racism. She cites pseudoscientific theories that asserted that Europeans were superior and that people of African descent were a separate species. Although Charles Darwin and other scientists proved repeatedly that all humans have a common ancestry in Africa, some whites still considered themselves more highly evolved.

Study participants subliminally primed by drawings of apes focused more on black faces. Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in the Rodney King beating routinely spoke of African-Americans as apes. Bigots have always associated marginalized out-groups with animals to dehumanize them. 

Segregation baked discrimination into every aspect of black life.

Eberhardt describes the stringencies of racism in American life before the Civil Rights movement: government-backed segregation determined where blacks went to school, what parks their children could play in, and what restaurants, hotels and hospitals would accept them. Today, despite integration, black and white people largely remain segregated, now by economics. 

The author understands that people tend to associate the presence of a majority of blacks in a neighborhood with higher crime rates, even when statistics show otherwise. White and black people both perceive black neighborhoods as more disorderly.  In America, many people also associate immigrants and the homeless with disorderliness.  

The availability of surveillance equipment makes people more fearful,  and fear brings bias to the surface. Nextdoor is a social network app connecting 185,000 US neighborhoods. Its posts warning of people who look “suspicious” betrayed unconscious bias. Eberhardt helped Nextdoor get neighbors to focus on observed behavior rather than skin color. 

Integrated schools help kids learn to interact with diverse people.

Personal relationships across racial divides are the most powerful force in dissolving bias. However, forcing people into contact with a group they’re primed to despise can confirm bias and lead to conflict. Only time and frequent contact allow people to find common ground. 

Working through misunderstandings and discussing unconscious racial attitudes leads to better relationships and stronger communities. Eberhardt sadly offers the shocking truth that segregation in the United States has “more than tripled” since the 1980s, due to court rulings constraining busing and overturning desegregation programs.

White people believe “noticing skin color is rude” and so they don’t mention it, even when it would provide helpful information. People can’t ignore race, as Eberhardt learned, because that’s part of how the mind sorts information. Children see too much visual media that conveys racism.

An emphasis on supporting and appreciating diversity makes discrimination easier to identify and address. Educators must teach the history of systemic racism so children understand the roots of discrimination. This is the path to healing. “Research supports the notion,” the author writes, “that raising the issue of race and discrimination explicitly can lead people to be more open-minded and act more fairly.”

The white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, foreshadowed a resurgence of racial hatred after decades of progress.

In August 2017, a parade of neo-Nazis protesting the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue descended on the University of Virginia campus, carrying torches and signs proclaiming hatred. The march presaged a return to intolerance after years of positive momentum on civil rights. Eberhardt finds that police could have prevented the violence if they had taken the threats seriously.

Many white people seem to fear the changes in US demographics. Bias extends beyond prejudice against African-Americans, the author notes. For instance, from 2015 to 2017, anti-Semitic acts including threats and vandalism spiked 60%. 

The civil rights movement and the end of the Vietnam War grew from college protests, but today’s polarizing politics turn colleges into battlegrounds over free speech and rights. Colleges and professors, the author regretfully observes, often do not forcefully support free speech that challenges hateful rhetoric.

Bias limits the economic opportunity, freedom and safety of African-Americans.

Bias plays a part in which jobs African-Americans can secure and how much they earn. Even graduates of top-tier schools try to “whiten” their résumés by using initials instead of more Asian or African-American names. They seek to avoid triggering interviewers’ implicit biases. Such “whitened” résumés garner more interviews. For those who are doing the hiring, these CVs make candidates seem like a more “comfortable fit.” Even so, 55% of white Americans believe affirmative action is proof of discrimination against them.

After two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks because they used the bathroom without buying coffee, Starbucks closed its stores to conduct employee training on discrimination. The company’s efforts may not change employee biases, but this was a bold, public statement that Starbucks will not tolerate discrimination. Eberhardt applauds Starbucks’ conviction and believes such public displays by large corporations breed greater tolerance, or at least less tolerance for intolerance.

Implicit bias, the author concludes, is hard to eradicate. Uncovering situations that bring bias to the surface – such as situations in which officers need to make quick decisions – requires more effort than a training session can provide. The Oakland Police Department decided to stop pursuing suspects on foot to neutralize stressful situations that could trigger biased thinking. Eberhardt believes in such action. Confronting bias, she says, is the only way to bring about change, and it makes everyone’s world more just.

Impassioned Scholarship

Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt has won a very rare honor: a MacArthur fellowship. You cannot apply for this considerable cash award. You cannot lobby for it. The MacArthur Foundation gives its rewards on the basis of the recipients’ creativity and contribution to society. Reading Biased makes it clear why its judges chose Eberhardt. She is an evocative, quite readable writer, which is rare for an academic. The number of years she put in on the front lines of research in her field are even more unusual. She has made herself deeply qualified to write about the processes of bias in the United States. She doesn't offer a polemic, though she also doesn't try to hide her sadness, frustration and outrage. Amazingly, Eberhardt believes that progress against bias is possible. Delving into her extraordinary report is an excellent first step in making that progress.

About the Author

Jennifer L. Eberhardt teaches psychology at Stanford University and is a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant. She is the co-director of Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions (SPARQ), a Stanford Center initiative bringing experts together to address social issues. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she was named one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers.

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