Your Brain Is Racist

ICYMI: ProPublica and the Washington Post took a look at whether people of any particular race are more likely to receive presidential pardons. You'll be shocked, I'm sure, by what they found:

White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities...

Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president's ultimate act of mercy, according to an analysis of previously unreleased records and related data.

Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are considered.

"I'm just astounded by those numbers," said Roger Adams, who served as head of the Justice Department's pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He said he could think of nothing in the office's practices that would have skewed the recommendations. "I can recall several African Americans getting pardons."

In the face of the numbers, of course, that comment ranks with "some of my best friends are ... ". But I don't mean to be nasty. What it really illustrates is that we're all guided by what the social psychologists call "implicit bias" or "unconscious bias." We may think we understand what we think and believe, but most of the time, our minds aren't telling us what they're doing. Or as the social scientists so deftly explain it, "Processing in the amygdala occurs quickly and even without awareness of the evoking stimulus."

Translated, here's the idea behind social cognition theory and unconscious bias. From infancy, we learn how to put things in categories: this is a square; this is a circle; this is red, this is blue; this sparrow is a bird; and this peacock is also a bird. Our neurons make little shortcuts about all this info so we can navigate life and avoid cognitive overload. Of course, some of what we absorb isn't really good for us, or for others. All those group-based jokes about other groups that your family or schoolmates told when you were little—about the Poles, the Jews, the Mexicans, the faggots, the blondes, the folks from Kentucky, or whomever it might have been—it's all still in there, just like your memory of your grandmother's latkes or Christmas cookies.

And—here's the important point—unless we consciously think about race, sex, and other areas of bias, those implicit biases affect our decisions, from what schools our we pick for our kids to who gets released from prison. Just saying we're not racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or whatever it might be isn't enough. We have to think consciously about what we think about. Otherwise we're just "astounded" by the results.

Test out your unconscious perceptions about race, and other areas, here, so that you can find out what your brain is doing behind your back. Don't feel bad when you get a terrible score. Just ... keep it in mind.

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