Culture and Society

Deconstructing Racism in America: Part 2 The Science

<–To Part 1

When you break down the biology of race, the idea that one group of people has tangibly superior characteristics that result from slightly different levels of melanin in their skin, it sounds absurd. Because it is. Skin color is about the same degree of genetic variation that eye color or hair texture requires. But we do it anyway. And not just in America where we’ve had centuries of social engineering to fuel it. I’ve been all over the world, Africa, Asia, Europe and each group has it’s own particular brand of racial bias. Even in Africa, they divide themselves up by tribe or region and assign value in a way that includes physical identifiers to determine bias. It’s everywhere and always has been.

So how can something so biologically illogical be so systemic? There’s good news if you seek the answer to that question. Because we’ve been studying it for a long time. There’s a treasure trove of research and science around understanding how we behave towards people we view to be “different than us”.  Breaking that down on a molecular level actually affords us the ability to get down the psychological roots of our dysfunction. Which might help us first be mindful of it and then be thoughtful about fixing it. Remember, that’s the point. Fixing the problem, right?

So what exactly does the science say?

Thanks to the good people at the Universities of Iowa, Toledo, Kentucky, Duke, Princeton and Arizona and others, we have a lot of data around how people feel about race when they get to talk about it anonymously for the good of science. We’ve been collecting it over six or seven decades. And it starts with stereotypes.

We intuitively understand that we humans infer things about the world around us. We make inferences about all kinds of things. If we see smoke, we expect fire. If it’s January in Boston, we’re quick to grab a jacket without even looking outside. Our brains don’t allow us to think through every decision without preconception. If it did, we’d never get through breakfast. We use these inferences to think more efficiently.We make them all the time about people too. We make inferences about our friends and our kids and we make tons of them about our spouses. It turns out we’re really good at it. We usually get it right when we infer. But it’s also why we get a lot of things wrong.

Stereotypes about people are born of the same thought patterns of our massive human inference machine sitting atop our shoulders. And though we’re all in some level of agreement that they can be harmful, turning off our need to assume, when we do it all day everyday about everything, for one subject, people, is hard to do. It’s hard to turn off the natural thought patterns of our cave man, tribal brains without trying. And it’s near impossible without admitting that as humans, we are all subject to natural bias against people we are unfamiliar with. But we need to. Because when we infer things based on race, we wander into dangerous territory. Because racist behavior is a process. And that process begins with the innocent and even necessary function of our perpetual need to infer.

Not all stereotypes are negative ones though. And they’re not societally permanent. In fact, over the 70 years that these experiments have spanned, we’ve developed way more positive stereotypes about African Americans than negative ones. And still hold many negative ones too. Stereotyping is still shaky moral ground to stand on, either way. Because even if we have an overload of positive ones about a group, it colors our opinions of individuals inaccurately and ignores the potential of individual merits. So it makes us act inappropriately. So we’d all agree then, that we should stop stereotyping people. Right?

Well, it turns out, that’s really hard to do.

As the data shows us how people’s biases have evolved over time, it also shows us that we stereotype groups we are unfamiliar with at a near mathematical constant. No matter what we think about a group of people categorized broadly as not us, good bad or indifferent, our natural thought pattern is to think of them stereotypically. The individual goes away. And we base our opinions and actions on a perception of the group.

Now, it’s not surprising that people react to people unfamiliar to their “in-group”-their tribe-very differently than they act to an “out-group”-the other tribe. We probably didn’t need science to tell us that. But the data also tells us something very useful. The rate at which we stereotype is directly correlated to how much interaction we have with that out group.

The most familiar example we can use is the relations of our most common tribes: men and women. We men are awfully familiar with women, so we’re very comfortable with believing that they have significant individual variables. We still say things like “women do X and men do Y” but we men also understand that there are many different kinds of women. Because we are very familiar with them. But, when we’re lazy with our thinking, we will stereotype them based on our view of them being “not us.” One has to be quite intellectually lazy these days to actually believe all women are the same. With people less familiar to us though, like other nationalities or races we don’t interact with often, that appears not to be the case.

Let’s try this thought experiment. You’re an American and someone at a cocktail party brings up the fact that his daughter is about to marry a Himalayan Sherpa. And you’re taken by the conversation and want to participate. You might find yourself assuming some things about that Sherpa that’s marrying your new friend’s daughter based on what little, common things you know about them. You’ve seen some pictures from decades ago when explorers first climbed Mount Everest. Maybe you saw a movie about it once. Maybe a cousin of yours told you a story about his trip there. And since you have almost no opportunity meet a Sherpa in order to color that stereotypical opinion of that tribe differently, you’ll likely hold onto whatever bits of information you have to form an opinion until you have more evidence to the contrary. And the validity of your contribution to the conversation will be limited. But that won’t stop you from sharing. That’s what we do.  We share our biases with our in group.

Now in 21st Century America, our in group becomes our in group by liking the same things on Facebook and watching the same cable news stations. Science and technology are starting to collide. Because if there’s one thing that breaks down the process of stereotyping, it’s familiarity. If there’s one that builds it up, its confirmation of the characteristics of different groups through things like the news or social media, without ever actually having to have first hand experience.

An iPhone in the hands of a caveman breeds more stereotypes. And more division-politically, racially, culturally. Though the natural forces of integration are slowly helping, this is one place that perhaps, technology is hurting.

So how do we break the cycle?

You’ll have to wait until Part III for that.


–> Tomorrow: Part III: Breaking Down the Tribe

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4 replies »

  1. We even hold internalized bias that we use against ourselves. I have had to work through fat phobia, with liberating results. Next is ageism. Society inculcates us so assiduously, these heuristics are invisible.