Executive Director of Research, Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity
University of California, Los Angeles
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on contemporary racial and gender discrimination, particularly in the domain of criminal justice. It is inspired by a single question: How does one explain persistent racial inequality in the face of declining explicit racial prejudice? This question summarizes the conundrum of many contemporary intergroup conflicts and presents difficult practical and theoretical challenges to traditional psychological approaches to bias and discrimination. Rather than assuming that declining prejudiced attitudes are simply evolving, my work investigates possible psychological mechanism that produce inequality even absent bias. Put another way, my work investigates racism without racists (and sexism without sexists, etc). The goal of my research is to generate new language to describe contemporary intergroup conflict that foregrounds the role of situations in producing objectionable outcomes and, therefore, better describes both the mechanisms and experiences of racism and sexism.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
My interest in creating a better language for contemporary discrimination began in high school, when I was confronted with a kind of bigotry for which my community had not prepared me. I had assumed that bigots were uneducated and simple, and my experiences up until my senior year of high school confirmed that assumption. That changed when I took a class from a sharp-minded educator who hated Black folks. That his anti-Black arguments were seemingly well-reasoned only served to further injure and infuriate myself and other Black classmates who found ourselves ill-equipped to counter them. Consequently, I dedicated my free time to developing a better language about race and racism in the hopes of healing some of those injuries (with the help of several mentors who had long bemoaned his gentile bigotry). This eventually became my vocation.
The rest of my academic trajectory has been a series of happy accidents. I wound up in psychology because I thought it offered the best methods for understand contemporary discrimination, and I wound up studying law enforcement because it permitted me to translate research from the lab to the world and back. The most exciting part of my job is being in a position to do science and influence policy without having to choose between the two. That gets me excited to go to work every day, even when the data don’t cooperate.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I have been blessed to have many, many intellectual inspirations in my short life. My father, a philosopher, taught me to play with ideas. My high school mentors, Jim Davis and Carlton Bradley, taught me to take that play seriously. My college mentors, Cornel West, Larry Bobo, and William Julius Wilson, taught me the difference between being a student and being a scholar. My mentors in graduate school (and beyond), Claude Steele, Jennifer Eberhardt, Lera Boroditsky, and Hazel Markus, each helped me to become a scholar and taught me to be thankful for others’ patience with me. And my principal collaborators/mentors, Tom Tyler, Jack Dovidio, and Jim Sidanius, continue to demonstrate how far I have to go. What strikes me about the process of naming my mentors is how different the landscape of the academy looked when many of them were becoming scholars themselves. My generation of academics is familiar with the experience being the “first” (Black, queer, female, etc.) in various parts of our professional lives. But whatever our trials might be, they pale in comparison to those of the generation before. As much as any of the gifts that individual mentors have given me, I am thankful to each of them for creating a generation of mentors that provide models and support for mine.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
What’s your future research agenda?
Understanding which self-threats produce which kinds of discrimination is a project that will likely outlive my career. Similarly, I am unlikely to reach a point when I fully understand all the ways that race and gender influence the equitable enforcement of laws. So, I suppose my “agenda” is to keep translating research with law enforcement to lab experiments and vice versa until I am physically unable to do that anymore. Then, maybe, I’ll tour with Prince.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
I would encourage PhD students to remember how impossibly privileged academics are by virtue of our vocation. Despite the many demands on our time and the daunting process of professional advancement, we are fundamentally paid to ponder the human condition, discover things about it, and write up what we find. That’s a pretty cool job description. I think graduate students are happier (and better job candidates) when they are more afraid of squandering that privilege than they are of not getting a job. I think I am a better colleague (and better scholar) when I am more driven to maximize my opportunities than I am to earn tenure. And I think our field is better regarded (and more useful) when we prioritize the pursuit of knowledge above the pursuit of job security. So my advice would be something I learned from my mentors: Take seriously your responsibility to wonder. Do it early, often, and ceaselessly.
What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 292-306.
This was a terrifying manuscript to work on, both because we were worried about what the field would think of us, and because our findings supported hypotheses that had appalling consequences in the world. When running analyses on our data, the excitement that usually accompanies significant results was always accompanied by the crushing reality of what we had found. A few years removed from that process, the experience of conducting this research has become the model for how I want to be a scholar. I was excited about the science and simultaneously felt the weight of what we were learning. “The nausea lets you know you’re doing it right!” a friend told me. It’s funny because it’s true.