Kristof and Collins

In “Our Biased Brains” Mr. Kristof asks a question:  Where does this ingrained propensity to racial bias come from?  In “Beyond the Demon Sheep” Ms. Collins points out that some candidates think we should be actually drawn to their lack of political experience.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

To better understand the roots of racial division in America, think about this:

The human brain seems to be wired so that it categorizes people by race in the first one-fifth of a second after seeing a face. Brain scans show that even when people are told to sort people by gender, the brain still groups people by race.

Racial bias also begins astonishingly early: Even infants often show a preference for their own racial group. In one study, 3-month-old white infants were shown photos of faces of white adults and black adults; they preferred the faces of whites. For 3-month-old black infants living in Africa, it was the reverse.

This preference reflected what the child was accustomed to. Black infants living in overwhelmingly white Israel didn’t show a strong preference one way or the other, according to the study, published in Psychological Science.

Where does this ingrained propensity to racial bias come from?

Scholars suggest that in evolutionary times we became hard-wired to make instantaneous judgments about whether someone is in our “in group” or not — because that could be lifesaving. A child who didn’t prefer his or her own group might have been at risk of being clubbed to death.

“It’s a feature of evolution,” says Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychology professor who co-developed tests of unconscious biases. These suggest that people turn out to have subterranean racial and gender biases that they are unaware of and even disapprove of.

I’ve written about unconscious bias before, and I encourage you to test yourself atimplicit.harvard.edu. It’s sobering to discover that whatever you believe intellectually, you’re biased about race, gender, age or disability.

What’s particularly dispiriting is that this unconscious bias among whites toward blacks seems just as great among preschoolers as among senior citizens.

Banaji’s research projects show that unconscious racial bias turns up in children as soon as they have the verbal skills to be tested for it, at about age 4. The degree of unconscious bias then seems pretty constant: In tests, this unconscious bias turns out to be roughly the same for a 4- or 6-year-old as for a senior citizen who grew up in more racially oppressive times.

In one set of experiments, children as young as about 4 were shown ambiguous photos of people who could be white or Asian. In some, the people in the photos were smiling; in others, they were frowning.

White American kids disproportionately judged that the people who were smiling were white and that those who were frowning were Asian. When the experiment was conducted in Taiwan with exactly the same photos, Taiwanese children thought that the faces when smiling were Asian, when frowning were white.

The American children were also shown faces that were ambiguous as to whether the person was white or black. In those cases, white kids disproportionately thought that the smiling people were white and the frowning ones were black.

Many of these experiments on in-group bias have been conducted around the world, and almost every ethnic group shows a bias favoring its own. One exception: African-Americans.

Researchers find that in contrast to other groups, African-Americans do not have an unconscious bias toward their own. From young children to adults, they are essentially neutral and favor neither whites nor blacks.

Banaji and other scholars suggest that this is because even young African-American children somehow absorb the social construct that white skin is prestigious and that black skin isn’t. In one respect, that is unspeakably sad; in another, it’s a model of unconscious race neutrality. Yet even if we humans have evolved to have a penchant for racial preferences from a very young age, this is not destiny. We can resist the legacy that evolution has bequeathed us.

“We wouldn’t have survived if our ancestors hadn’t developed bodies that store sugar and fat,” Banaji says. “What made them survive is what kills us.” Yet we fight the battle of the bulge and sometimes win — and, likewise, we can resist a predisposition for bias against other groups.

One strategy that works is seeing images of heroic African-Americans; afterward, whites and Asians show less bias, a study found. Likewise, hearing a story in which a black person rescues someone from a white assailant reduces anti-black bias in subsequent testing. It’s not clear how long this effect lasts.

Deep friendships, especially romantic relationships with someone of another race, also seem to mute bias — and that, too, has implications for bringing young people together to forge powerful friendships.

“If you actually have friendships across race lines, you probably have fewer biases,” Banaji says. “These are learned, so they can be unlearned.”

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Do you want the next president to be somebody who brags about not being a politician?

Think about that for a minute. “Politician” isn’t a popular term right now. But claiming that you’re not one when you run for president is a little like applying for a job as brain surgeon by announcing, “I am not a physician.”

This week we acquired three new candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Two are running on the not-a-politician line. That would be Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, and Ben Carson, a retired — yes! — neurosurgeon.

The third is the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. We have met Huckabee before, and we will have many future opportunities to discuss his remarkable transformation from poor country lad to governor of Arkansas, from likable conservative candidate for president in 2008 to the rather mean right-winger we’re stuck with now.

But today let’s consider Fiorina and Carson, who want you to elect them to the highest office in the land because they have never held elective office.

Carson (“I’m not a politician”) became a Tea Party hero when he began denouncing Obamacare (“the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”), comparing American society to Nazi Germany and claiming the president resembled “most psychopaths.”

Some political experts believe he is the kind of Republican who can do well in Iowa. Is that true, Iowa? I would rather think better of you.

Fiorina is running as the anti-Hillary. (“I think if Hillary Clinton faces a woman opponent, she will get a hitch in her swing.”) She is the kind of person who tells you that when she went to college she studied philosophy, ancient Greek, Latin, French and German, then adds that she also took Italian, “But that was just for the fun of it.”

That last bit comes from her memoir, which chronicles her rise to head of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, followed by a rather inglorious firing in 2005 for reasons that she most definitely feels were not her fault.

In her first campaign video, she’s shown watching Clinton’s announcement. We now have videos of candidates attacking other candidates’ videos. Soon we will drop debates entirely in favor of tweet-offs.

“Our founders never intended us to have a professional political class,” Fiorina says, turning to the camera.

Virtually every elected president in American history — not counting the occasional military hero — made his way to the top by getting elected to other offices first. There are a couple of exceptions who just served in the cabinet, like Herbert Hoover. We can all look forward to hearing a candidate vow to return us to the golden days of the Hoover administration.

Fiorina’s answer is to go back to men like Thomas Jefferson (state legislator, governor, diplomat, secretary of state, vice president), who she says believed strictly in “citizen government.” The founders may not have liked the idea of a political class, but they picked presidents who were part of one. Public men, whose experience in private enterprise frequently involved running a plantation into the ground.

Fiorina, whose tenure at Hewlett-Packard included a controversial merger deal and the layoff of about 30,000 employees, is actually an excellent example of why we don’t want the country to be run like a business. The American people aren’t just shareholders. They would like their government to be efficient, and they would like the budget to balance. But they also want a lot of other stuff — protection from evildoers, compassion for the needy, assistance in retirement, highways without potholes, good schools, a healthy environment.

Who gets what first is a political question. One that preferably would be resolved without having any internal crises so exciting that the chief executive gets tossed out of office.

People who run for president boasting that they aren’t politicians are frequently just trying to compensate for a lack of political skill. Carson (who presumably wants to run government like an operating room) is going to appeal to the folks who think the military is plotting to take over Texas, but otherwise, his only political gift seems to be for making outrageous statements. Fiorina ran for the Senate in 2010 and was beaten by Barbara Boxer, who was thought to be a vulnerable incumbent until Fiorina got hold of her, racking up a grand total of 42 percent of the vote.

On the plus side, Fiorina’s campaign produced one of the all-time great attack videos, in which her more moderate primary opponent was depicted as a Demon Sheep, portrayed by a man crawling across the grass with what looked like a wooly rug over his back and a piece of cardboard on his face. After that it was downhill all the way.

If you’re shopping for candidates with no experience in the business they want to lead, I’d say at least go for the one with the Demon. But really, there are smarter buys.

Advertisements

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: