Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bias Is Built Into Your Brain

There has been a lot of talk about racial bias in the media lately in the wake of the unfortunate events involving the police in Ferguson, MO and in New York City.  We continue to hear that the police have a racial bias and the "system" is stacked against African-Americans.

Of course, President Obama and the First Lady weighed in recently with their own experiences of racial discrimination bias. President Obama told the story of how he had been mistaken as a car valet while waiting for his own car outside a restaurant. Mrs. Obama told us how, when she was shopping incognito at a Target in Virginia in 2011, a lady asked for her help in taking something down from a high shelf. (By the way, Michelle Obama is 5'11"tall. Was she asked this question because she was black? Or just because she was tall?)

I don't want to diminish any of the feelings of the President or First Lady in these situations. There is no doubt in my mind that they have both had to deal with racial bias in their life. To argue anything else from my perspective as a white male would be ludicrous. I simply have not walked a mile (or a single step) in their shoes.

Bias exists all around us. Bias is built into your brain. We stereotype. We profile. We discriminate. What troubles me is that we seem to be incapable of accepting this fact of life. We can't change the bias in the brain. You can only affect the experience that creates the bias that gets built into your brain.

In fact, let me recount an experience that I had that was not much different than President Obama's valet experience. In the early 1990's I moved to New Jersey from Ohio and I had to get a new driver's license. I left work early one day and found the DMV office near Paramus, NJ. There was a mass of people standing in a variety of lines. As I tried to figure out which line to stand in on ( I quickly found out that in New Jersey that you stand "on line" rather than "in line" as I did in Ohio) I must have looked rather bewildered. As I was looking around trying to get my bearings in the chaos of that state agency office, another rather nervous looking young man came up to me and asked "if I was there for the chauffeur's exam?"

Why would this guy think I was at the DMV for the chauffeur's exam? After I politely told him I was not, I took a closer look at the crowd. Out of the hundred or so people in the DMV that day, he and I were the only two wearing a suit! It didn't matter that I was an attorney, CPA or anything else. He saw a suit and in his experience the most logical conclusion was that if you were wearing a suit at the DMV you wanted to drive someone around for hire. I was a victim of bias at the DMV!

The fact is that we all stereotype because all of our brains use shortcuts to make decisions. It is the way the brain is wired. These shortcut pathways make decision making easier. Our brain is a wondrous thing. A good portion of the calories we burn in a day go to fuel this enormous power plant. Therefore, the brain always tries to make decisions that use the least amount of effort and energy it can. These shortcuts are called heuristics.

It does not mean that the decisions based on these shortcuts are always right. But they have generally served the human species well for the most part because it helped us adapt and survive. We could make quicker and more efficient decisions even if we weren't right all the time.

For example, we learned early on that it was dangerous to go outside the cave at night because a higher percentage did not return as compared to when others left in daylight. We learned to avoid the plant with the funny looking berries. Uncle Abner made that mistake, may he rest in peace. Once we found a "safe" place we tended to stay there despite the fact that had we ventured over the hill we very well may have discovered an even better place.

If you are human you use heuristics, bias and stereotypes every day. If you don't know better you are going to start with a default position as you assess things. For example, if you are looking at a product you are not familiar with and you have two items to choose from, you are going to assume the expensive option is better. If you move to a new city and need to open a bank account, you are going to assume that the bank with 50 branches and the skyscraper downtown is better than the bank with one office. After all, if they got that big they must have done something right.

In both cases, a closer and detailed look may show you are totally wrong, but you will undoubtedly have an initial bias based on prior experience.  Your brain is not going to start from ground zero when there are already paths established previously to rely on. There is bias built into your brain based on your experiences since you were a baby.

Prior to the 1950's, Asians who lived in the United States were stereotyped as cheap, poor, uneducated laborers.  Products from Asia were derided as nothing more than cheap junk. That stereotype no longer exists. It literally has been turned on its head. Our actual experience has shown the prior generalization was wrong. It has been replaced with another stereotype that is also an overly broad generalization.

Today, students in high school and college cringe when they see Asian-Americans entering their classrooms on the first day of class. American businesses have learned some hard lessons from their Asian counterparts.  The old stereotype is gone.  That change did not occur because people just started to think differently one day.  It changed because people were forced to change their thinking because of what they experienced and the behaviors and results they saw from greater and greater numbers of Asians they came in contact with.

Any bias that the police may have in dealing with young, black men is rooted in their brains. It is based on their experiences in their field of duty.  Look no further than the crime statistics if you have any doubts why a police officer might be quicker to draw a gun against a young black man compared to a White or Asian man.

The incidence of arrests for Blacks is over twice what it is for Whites on per capita basis.

Blacks commit almost 5 times as many violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) per 1,000 population as Whites according to FBI data based on arrests for violent crimes.

Blacks commit eight times more crimes against Whites than Whites do on Blacks.

Consider what President Obama said about the very grandmother who supported and raised him.

"...my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Was Madelyn Dunham a racist?  Of course not.  She loved for and cared for Barack Obama when his own mother could not or would not as she pursued her own life. His race did not matter to her, she loved his soul.

Would Madelyn Dunham or Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson act the same way if most of the young black men they had prior experience with were more like Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell or Col. Alan West?  Of course not.

Discrimination and bias exists against Blacks in the criminal justice system and in their daily lives. It is disingenuous for anyone to deny this. However, when you look at the facts it should also be understandable of why that bias can occur. It is not right, but it is reality.

However, all of the energy of the African American community about this problem seems to be only directed outwards. It seems that it is the fault of everyone else in society. I don't see much energy devoted to looking inward for solutions to the problem.

There will be no change in bias in the system until the systemic problems in the Black community are addressed. Poverty is at the root of the problem but that is largely driven by too many children born out of wedlock, too many high school dropouts and too many drugs and gangbangers on the streets.

Where are the voices talking about the nearly three out of four African American children born out of wedlock? Where are the voices decrying the culture among black youths that seems to glorify drugs and violence? Where are the voices speaking out about the fact that only 54 percent of African Americans are graduating from high school?

Crime is largely a function of poverty and poor home environments.  The absence of a father in the home is a significant factor in this equation.  That is why I think it is especially ironic that there is so much energy being devoted to enabling gay marriages in this country but you hear almost nothing about encouraging African Americans to marry before having a child.

Failure to complete high school is almost a certain path to poverty in this day and age.  We are spending massive amounts of money on welfare and other programs to help the poor but you hear little about the massive failure of young African Americans to graduate from high school.  We are spending enormous sums of money on the symptoms but pay little attention to the underlying disease.

African Americans need to look to the lessons of Asian Americans in this country. Asians in this country have taken a negative bias and turned it into a positive bias within my lifetime. They got the chance and they proved over and over that they were nothing like the stereotype they were being portrayed as.

At one time we were also told that Black athletes could not compete with White athletes. Jesse Owens, Oscar Robertson, Jackie Robinson and Marion Motley were among those who broke the bias. Black athletes got the opportunity, worked hard, excelled on the playing field and all the old stereotypes were gone. .

Unfortunately, too many African Americans protestors are playing righting into the stereotyping that exists when they are chanting "Burn this b##ch down" and "Death to cops".  Rather than improve their situation, they are just burning more bias into more brains.

It is not going to happen by shouting "Burn, Baby, Burn."

It will happen by changing the bias that gets burned into the brain with positive, reinforcing experiences every day and in every way.  I doubt Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson are the leaders who we need to change the paradigm. Let's hope we find the leader that can do it. Barack Obama, you still have the greatest opportunity to be that person. We can only hope that you will change.

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