Sadly, I am of course a racist. A recovering racist, to be sure, but a racist nevertheless. How could it possibly be otherwise for me and others of my generation?
I was born in 1936 and “socialized” into a world where the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and the “N” word were everyday parts of reality. Even in households like mine where these events were unequivocally condemned and fought against, just the simple awareness of them perversely conjured in young minds an image of “colored people” as objects of disdain rather than nobility. (Research consistently demonstrates that people devalue victims; victimhood actually erodes respect.) And as we grew up, these negative images did not disappear. Rather, they got buried under later layers of understanding and sophistication that may have intensified our horror at racial prejudice but didn’t totally eliminate the original, devaluing impressions.
Given such conditioning, the question isn’t whether or not racism is cooked into us. The question is: What it will take to rise above it? Recent research shows why it is so difficult to transcend those emotion-charged impressions and perceive people of color in even-handed terms. Two remarkable studies illustrate the challenge:
The first shows how powerfully we superimpose and cling to a prior judgment (“prejudice”). Researchers went to convenience stores where lottery tickets are sold. As soon as a person bought a $1 ticket and before they could scratch to determine its value, a researcher approached and offered to buy the ticket for $2. “Oh, no,” was the universal response. Well, then, how about $3? “Nope.” Okay, $4. “No way!” And so it went. Subject after subject irrationally clung to a piece of paper the true value of which was utterly unknown to them, resisting the opportunity to trade it for cash to buy two or three or four new tickets, thereby incontestably increasing their odds of winning.
The bidding continued. How about $10 for that ticket? “Not a chance!” Resistance stiffened. Eventually, most buyers did agree to relinquish their $1 ticket of unknown value for (are you ready for this?) an average of $23!
This is a perfect illustration of “prejudice”—prior judgment. The ticket holders made a prior judgment about their ticket’s possible value, and they clung to that prejudice despite any proof whatsoever that their belief was valid. Harmless hope, in this example. But not harmless at all when the very same instinct for prejudicial thinking turns negative, and hope becomes suspicion and hatred. Then, all we can imagine is the worst, damning without any evidence to support our stance.
We Americans cherish the thought of ourselves as “fair minded”, and it is clearly a value to be honored and pursued. One could wish that it were attainable by automatically ignoring our prejudicial thinking. The problem is, we’re just not very well wired up to do that. This was demonstrated in another research project, done during the campaign of 2004.
Declared supporters of Bush and Kerry were presented with two sets of statements, one by their favored candidate and one by the opponent. Both the Bush statements and the Kerry statements contained blatant internal contradictions in which the candidates had actually said things that were clearly “flip-flops” or otherwise utterly incompatible with other things they had said. The subjects in the research project were asked to rate the extent to which each candidate’s statements were contradictory. You can already guess the result: their own candidate got a free pass, and the other was pilloried for being so ridiculously inconsistent.
But here’s the kicker: while they were forming their judgments, their brains were being monitored by electrodes. Some electrodes tracked the brain activity in the portion of the brain where logical thought takes place. Others monitored activity where emotions are generated. Guess which area was dead as a doornail, and which was lit up and spinning like a Roman Candle? Right. The logical functions were flat-lined, and the individuals’ judgments were being generated entirely by sheer emotion.
A friend recently returned from a family reunion which felt to her like time-warp travel back to the bad old days. The “N” word was bandied about unashamedly as her clan reassured each other that one of them would never occupy the Oval Office. And just last night, a dinner companion reported that his Ivy League roommate from the ‘50s confessed that he just couldn’t bring himself to elect a black man President of the United States.
So sad. So tragic. So understandable.
Okay, so recovery from our racism is a dramatically more challenging task than we ever imagined. But now that we know how the deck is actually stacked against us in the ways we think—and don’t think—we have lost any excuse for knuckling under and giving in to our baser instincts. Being human is all about deliberately deciding to rise above those instincts. It’s time to step up to that challenge.