Stanford scholars examine racism, social change and how to build a more just future

The recent acts of violence perpetrated against Black communities has led many to question racism and racial injustice embedded in American society. Stanford scholars have been looking for ways to reduce racial disparities and how to create meaningful change.

The tragic deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky have shown the world how deeply embedded racial injustice and racism are in the social fabric of the United States.

These recent acts of violence have raised a set of complex and challenging questions about inequality in our society: Why are Black Americans repeatedly targeted by the police? What can be done to stop further atrocities against minority communities from occurring? As some protests against these deaths turn violent, are political protests and demonstrations an effective way to instigate change? How can we build a more just society?

These important questions are among the subjects of Stanford scholars’ work. Some researchers have worked with police agencies to develop recommendations for how officers can build safer and stronger relationships with the communities they serve. Others have examined what makes some political protests effective and why others turn violent. Researchers have also looked at how racial injustice cuts across other parts of society - such as schools and workplaces - and what can be done to reduce disparities. Here is some of that research and more.

Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt. has worked with police departments across the country to help them recognize implicit bias and understand racial disparities in policing. Her work with the Oakland Police Department, for example, resulted in 50 recommendations about how police agencies can build better relationships with the communities they serve.

Eberhardt’s work with the Oakland Police Department underscores how important data and transparency is for police agencies to identify specific problem areas and create evidence-based solutions.

"Our recommendations are broad but are anchored in our primary mission of pushing agencies to collect more data and to do more with the data they collect," wrote Eberhardt in the report. "For many agencies, this will require a change in mindset: it requires seeing themselves not only as crime-fighting institutions but also as institutions of learning."

Helping communities leverage better data between the police and the public are Sharad Goel, a professor of management science and engineering, and Cheryl Phillips, a computational journalist and lecturer at Stanford. Together, they founded the Stanford Open Policing Project , to help researchers, journalists, and policymakers investigate and improve interactions between police and the public.

Stanford big data study finds racial disparities in Oakland, Calif., police behavior, offers solutions

As protest erupts across the country, what makes some demonstrations more effective than others? Stanford sociologist Robb Willer is studying what causes certain social protests to be successful and others to backfire. For example, he studied violent confrontations between white nationalist protesters and anti-racist counter-protesters in both Charlottesville, Virginia, and Berkeley, California, and found that violence by anti-racist protesters can lead people to view them as unreasonable, which may, in turn, lead to people identifying less with the group.

Willer, a professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Graduate School of Business (GSB), also found that when anti-racists turn their protest into violence it can backfire even further: In some cases, it can even result in support for the other side.

Some of Willer’s colleagues in GSB have also studied what makes social movements successful. For example, Sarah A. Soule , the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior, has studied how social movements are more effective when they are part of coordinated efforts with legislators.

"With the rise of the internet," Soule said, "modern movements can mobilize constituents through their websites and social media. If your end goal is to get 500,000 people to turn up on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Twitter is great at that. Facebook is great at that. But if your goal is to actually make lasting change in the system, you have to work within the system - to essentially get a seat at the table."

Overcoming racial injustice requires a critical examination of how it cuts across different sectors of society, such as in the workplace and in schools.

Sean Reardon , a professor in the School of Education, has looked closely at how poverty intersects with the educational achievement gap. While racial segregation is a major indicator of educational inequality, Reardon’s research has also shown the impact of attending impoverished schools on Black and Hispanic students.

"It’s not the racial composition of the schools that matters. What matters is when Black or Hispanic students are concentrated in high-poverty schools in a district," said Reardon, who has set up the Educational Opportunity Project to help other researchers identify solutions in their areas to reduce educational disparities throughout the U.S.

Meanwhile, other researchers have shown how academic achievement can be hindered in other ways. For example, Claude Steele , a professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, found that even if students are well-prepared, negative stereotypes can affect how they perform.

School is not the only setting where stereotyping results in devastating consequences. Stanford research has also shown how it leads to hiring discrimination and underfunded companies, among other problems.

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