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Monday, April 1, 2013

The Nature Of Prejudice - Why It Should Never Be Confused With Discernment But Always Is

We all have some prejudice in us, say Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greewald in Blindspot, reviewed by Leonard Mlodinow in The New York Review of Books (April 2013), even though we don’t admit it.
The authors’ central point is that most of us are biased toward various groups. Moreover, though some of us are aware of being prejudiced, and some of us publicly express bigoted views, the authors assert that far more of us hold prejudices seated in a deep level of our minds that is inaccessible to our conscious awareness. The attitudes lurking in that blind spot, they say, have an important part in perpetuating discrimination.
One of the most important tests to determine prejudice is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) devised by Banaji and Greenwald in 1998 and now the standard instrument for assessing type and levels of prejudice.  Not surprisingly, most of us have some ‘hidden’ biases that are revealed in the test.
In the race version of the Implicit Association Test, you are asked to sort a mix of recognizably African-American and European faces, along with a mix of pleasant (“gentle,” “heaven”) and unpleasant (“hurt,” “anguish”) words. You are told to sort the European faces and unpleasant words to the left, say, and the African-American faces and pleasant words to the right—as quickly as possible. You are then asked to sort them again, this time with the European faces and pleasant words to one side, and the African-American faces and unpleasant words to the other.

Image result for images white black asian faces together
If you find the first task is more difficult (and thus takes more time), then, just as you associate red with diamonds and hearts, so, too, do you associate African-Americans with unpleasantness. It is the comparative timing of the two tasks that is telling. Since developing the race IAT, Greenwald has developed IATs that probe attitudes toward many other social groups.
This is all well and good, but neither the NYR reviewer nor apparently the authors of Blindspot state the obvious – of course we all have prejudices; but it is the nature, depth, and virulence of the prejudice that counts, not the mere fact of its existence.

In a seminal book on the subject of prejudice Gordon Allport (1954) said we come by prejudice honestly. Mlodinow paraphrases:
Imagine what life would be like if we didn’t categorize, if we treated each chair, each apple, each taxi we encountered as an individual, a blank slate whose character and purpose we had to decipher anew. We wouldn’t get very far, nor would we have lasted long on the ancient savannah if we paused to consider the intentions of each individual lion we encountered. Instead, once we’ve seen a single lion eat a human, we form a prejudice against the entire species.
In other words there is a big difference between prejudice and legitimate, natural discernment.  The line between them may be blurry; but to label all discerning behavior 'racist' is misguided and wrong.

As the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. once famously remarked, he would quicken his pace if he were in a nice, middle-class neighborhood and saw a hooded black teenager behind him.  Most people in all-white, upper-middle class neighborhoods would give the teenager a second look, and some might call the police.  Would they do it out of racial prejudice?  No.  They would do it because right now in the District of Columbia most of the crime is committed by blacks; the city is still as racially divided as apartheid South Africa; and there is a good likelihood that any black teenager in a white neighborhood is up to no good.

As long as a minority within a larger group persists in anti-social behavior, then the entire group will always be suspect, and no ‘progressive’ education or programs of social engineering will change that attitude.  In other words, although the majority of blacks in DC are law-abiding, church-going people, a significant minority are not; and the criminals, unfortunately, are the poster children for the white community.

This so-called prejudice is hardened by the many dysfunctional characteristics of black inner-city neighborhoods.  They exhibit high rates of drug abuse, unwed mothers, unemployment, and infant mortality; and low rates of academic attainment and civic involvement.  How can we look at black people in DC without thinking of those factors, and judging them on that basis?

In fact, if we ignored these sentiments and chose to see all black people as exactly the same, we would be no better than the idealistic French who ignored the festering Arab slums because the young, disaffected, angry, and frustrated young men there were, in the idealistic view of La République, no different from any other Frenchman.  French politicians chose to overlook the racial, ethnic, religious, and economic divide between white, middle-class Paris and the suburbs and in so-doing marginalized them.

Image result for images french northern suburbs riots

It does no good to turn a blind eye to social dysfunction.  It is a good thing to call it out for what it is, to face its racial dimension, to require an objective and open inquiry into its causes, and to demand an acceptance of responsibility for those who perpetuate it. When the two races have achieved economic and social parity, prejudice will cease.

It is no surprise either that there are still biases and prejudices against women; for millennia of male dominance cannot be erased in a few generations.  However, as women fast become the economic and social equals of men in America, the biases against them will decrease and fade out.  There is no point in hectoring men for gender bias, misogyny, and prejudice against women.  They are not stupid, and when they see full parity and a fair distribution of resources, their animosities and suspicions will cease.

Ironically but not surprisingly the noteworthy success of women in society has created a male backlash. Many women, still trying to work out their new public personae and find their own female place in a male world, still imitate men.  In their male-type assertiveness, aggressiveness, and competitiveness, they have angered men who cling to an old female stereotype. This resentment too will go as gender waters find their own level.

The prejudice against homosexuals is also understandable.  As the recent debate in the Supreme Court over gay rights has shown, many Americans are not quite ready to forget millennia of heterosexual history and accept if not embrace homosexuality as an absolute, unquestioned, unchallenged  behavior.  There are legitimate arguments for and against gay marriage, and the Justices have been hesitant to set it in stone before the public debate has been exhausted.  The point is that even the most dedicated, politically correct ‘progressive’ heterosexual man has trouble imagining what two gay men do in bed. Eventually even that very deep-seated and natural reaction will go.

Therefore, it is no surprise that bias and prejudice exist. 
One example Banaji and Greenwald offer concerns race: they report that about 75 percent of Americans have an unconscious, automatic preference for whites over blacks. A similar percentage, they say, are prone to stereotype by gender. And significant numbers also show bias with regard to “sexual orientation, and age as well as body weight, height, disability, and nationality.”
Human society has always been suspicious of The Other and will always be; but there is a difference between conditioned, reasonable reactions to those who are different; and hateful ones. One may shudder when I think of gay sex, but one doesn't automatically hate men who practice it.  One may be suspicious and critical of ghetto behavior, but don’t hate blacks.  Some men may wish that Type A women would lose their male-style aggressiveness but are married to very successful women and are fathers to successful daughters.

The final chapters of Blindspot are dedicated to measures that can be taken to expunge the hidden biases and prejudices in our hearts.  Expectedly, these solutions are silly and impractical.
They call the first the “blinding method.” You simply arrange not to actually meet the person you are interacting with. They give the example of symphony orchestras that erect a partition so the judges cannot determine the gender of those auditioning. That method doubled the number of women hired by major orchestras, but it is hard to imagine anyone interviewing a prospective corporate vice-president or a union leader from the other side of a shoji screen.
Others focus on deliberately working on eliminating prejudice, much like stopping smoking; and others suggested by Mlodinow, is to encourage the media to stop stereotyping, much like India has done for decades by offering tax incentives to Bollywood if filmmakers promote religious and ethnic harmony. There are no reliable data on the relationship between such schemes and communal peace, but religious violence continues in India today.  The disturbances and deaths in Assam are but the most recent example.

Image result for images beautiful bollywood star

Given the fact that most prejudice has at least some legitimacy; and that once social and economic parity is achieved prejudice will disappear or at least be insignificant; these vain self-help and misguided social measures are irrelevant. 

The Left keeps raising issues of  gender inequality, sexual discrimination, and racial prejudice because progressives have a fundamental, deep-seated, implacable, and immutable belief in the power of social engineering – that is, in the perfectibility of human society through external means. 

Yet, the historical record is quite clear – economic and social parity have always been the keys to integration.  There are and always will be disparities in social groups just as there are in individuals, and we will always live in an unequal world;  and until there is communal integration and consequent economic and social parity, there will be both discernment and prejudice.

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