Our Individual Blind Spots
Greenwald and Banaji
In the process of reading “The Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” it became obvious that some seemingly mean and dastardly people are, possibly, only suffering from the phenomenon of hidden bias.
Before expanding on that a brief summary of the book by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald is in order. Everyone has a blind spot in each eye. It is a small area where the optic nerve exits the retina on its way to the various parts of the brain to which it delivers information. We can experiment and by covering one eye and concentrating on a figure, slowly move our eye, experiencing a sudden disappearance and reappearance of the image. What is really amazing, though, is that when looking at a grid we see an entire grid. There is no hole in the grid. Our brains “fill in the blanks”. In the same way, we all have biases, prejudices if you will, some we are aware of, some we suspect, others are hidden from us. These biases exist in the unconscious mind. For many decades psychologists explored biases through the use of introspection. With the development of tests that uncover biases of which an individual is unaware, a great deal of new understanding has been made of the mind and how it works.
Biases provide for rapid responses that have survival value in many cases, but can work to our detriment. These unconscious rules of evaluation and behavior develop over time, sometimes with experience, sometimes without.
Many people are amazed and dismayed to find, for example, that they have a real unconscious aversion to fat people, or black people or any of a number of categories of people; usually unlike them, but sometimes, paradoxically, like them. In the preface to The Blindspot, the authors humorously point out an email from an individual who had taken their test. He was adamant that he did not have these biases, and ended with “fix your test.”
In the latest Supreme Court decision concerning Affirmative Action in the case of the University of Texas at Austin v. a white woman denied admission, Fisher, the plaintiff claimed that she was a victim of reverse discrimination. The decision to uphold the U of Texas policy which factored race into the mandate from the state to accept the top 10% of applicants was narrowly decided 4/3 with the caveat that this policy be constantly reviewed for necessity.
Before Justice Scalia’s death he made the following remark during oral arguments on the University of Texas case, “ African-American students might fare better in a ‘slower-track school’ rather than more competitive colleges.” Justice Ginsberg, as liberal in her rulings as Scalia was conservative in his, was a close friend of Scalia’s. She made the observation that Justice Scalia “says things that make other judges laugh.” It appears that Ginsberg knew that Scalia was completely unaware of his bias toward black students.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about hidden biases is that they at times seem unbelievable. Black police officers may develop a hidden bias against blacks in the neighborhoods that they patrol. Police officers often confess that over time they begin to see everyone as a potential criminal because criminals make up a disproportionate number of the people the officers encounter. Judge Thomas ruled against upholding the University of Texas policy, perhaps because he comes in contact with powerful and wealthy white people on a disproportionate basis. He may have come to believe that elite universities are for elite people, most of whom are white. I’m no psychologist.
We can guess how Justices Thomas and Alito will vote in almost every case. Their biases may be hidden to them, but not to the rest of us. What is disconcerting is that an individual, for example, who claims to be wholly without racial prejudice, and who in conversation may be indignantly critical of those who do, may have hidden biases against those of other races and act on those without being aware of them. These biases are the basis of much of our irrational behavior.
We all have these. They are not part of our DNA, but they are deeply ingrained and take some retraining to eliminate. First, we have to be aware of the biases we have.
How would we go about changing hidden - implicit - biases?
Let’s take police. It’s been said that the air-conditioned squad car was the greatest set-back to policing in modern history. If police officers talk only to themselves unless they are called to the site of a dispute or crime the only people in the neighborhood they patrol that they contact are suspects.
In Japan – which admittedly is a socially different place – police walk the beat. They make house calls in which they knock, the residents invite them in, and after some small talk about how the kids are doing, the officer may ask them about whether they have had any trouble or whether they have heard of suspicious activity. The police officer and the family become acquainted to the extent that each knows something about the other and trust is developed. The officer doesn’t see everyone as a criminal and families see the officer as a trusted protector.
The Big Picture
On a macro scale, the lack of interaction between those in power and everyone else leads to a blind spot on the part of the wealthy and political elite. Because the elite have the most to lose by interaction and understanding everyone else, they remain isolated and are usually the last to know when the revolution, or the economic depression, or election of a political populist is going to happen.
The Brexit vote caught world leaders and economists completely off guard. For them it was unthinkable. What about the economy? What about the economy? The economy that is being rocked by the vote is an economy that favors them, not the people who voted to leave the E.U. What unfortunately happens is that the disadvantaged are easy targets for populists that turn them against minorities and immigrants. In some instances, like the French Revolution, the outcome of the anger against the elite results in a prolonged blood bath in which many people, elite and common, perish.
In Nazi Germany a populist leader gained control and the result was a determined effort to rid the world of minorities; Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Intellectuals, Atheists, the list went on. Millions died. As bad as the Depression in North America was, it was much worse in Germany following WWI, and previously comfortable workers and shop-keepers were looking for scapegoats.
The Roaring Twenties has been looked on as a time of liberal frivolity, but it was a very conservative period. As black families moved off of the farms in the South to work in factories in the North, they were looked on as immigrants taking the jobs of white people. Anti-immigrant bias resulted in quotas that excluded some ethnic and racial groups from entering the U.S, and limited immigration of others. The Ku Klux Klan reached its peak in terms of influence and numbers. In the early ‘20s one in twenty people belonged to the Klan. When the market crashed, and the economy was decimated the Klan ranks fell to about 30,000, nationwide.
Why with all of the flappers and bath-tub gin and fabulously wealthy investors was this true? It was the result of great wealth disparity. For some reason the human psyche is unable to see the system as the problem. We tend to see the problem as some scapegoat like the Irish, or the Italians, or Poles, or, today, Mexicans.
The elite really think that they are better. They think as long as they are doing well, everyone is doing well. They are sheltered from confronting their biases. Because they only talk to each other, their biases are reinforced.
Marie Antoinette famously said about the poor having no bread to eat, “Let them eat cake.” She must have been surprised and indignant when she was lead to the guillotine.
Hitler was underestimated. No one should underestimate Donald Trump. Trump is feeding the fears of those who think that they have been disadvantaged by those who are not white. They can’t believe that the problem is a system rigged to keep the wealthy in power and increase the stream of wealth into their pockets. Amazingly, white conservative voters see themselves as part of the wealthy elite who are temporarily poor. They are acting on biases that they may not know they have.
One final comment; in the preface of The Blindspot, the authors admit that they can’t define good people, but they mean people who are trying to do the right and honorable thing. We all know some of these people. They rescue cats and dogs, worry about their neighbor’s health, make sure their kids get an education, and think all members of Islam are terrorists, and black neighborhoods are ghettos full of drug dealing gangbangers. And, they don’t want to believe anything else because they believe their biases.
I received a cartoon from one of these conservatives, early on in the Obama presidency, of President Obama looking like a monkey with some derogatory caption. I responded to the list (of about 250 of her closest friends) asking that I wanted to be taken off of her mailing list because I didn’t want any more racist hate mail. She responded that no one had ever called her a racist before. She didn’t know. She still doesn’t know. She’s still a friend because she is an otherwise decent person who would do anything for a friend, but I had to block her email. Where I live, if I didn’t have conservative friends, I would be nearly friendless.