I was once on an Amtrak train in front of which a troubled teenager chose to lie down on the rails. There was nothing the horrified engineer could do, since heavy trains can't stop on a dime.
Inertia — the tendency for things to remain the same — can be an equally serious social problem. America's four centuries of racial problems have so much inertia that they cannot easily be put behind us. Serious reform efforts for over half a century have produced progress, but not nearly enough.
One of the major obstacles to more progress has been "confirmation bias." Confirmation bias exists when people are more sensitive to information or experience which reinforces their current opinions than they are to information or experience suggesting they need to reconsider. But to improve America's racial climate many of us will need to change how we think.
People whose confirmation bias impedes improvement include some members of the white majority, some police officers, and some members of racial minorities.
When members of the white majority who believe in the inferiority of other races run into a low status minority person or someone who seems deficient in some respect, they interpret this experience as evidence supporting their belief. They brush off encounters with members of that same minority who have Ph.D.s in atomic physics as "exceptions that prove the rule."
("Proves the rule" actually means "tests the rule" — as in "automobile proving grounds" — and if it fails the test, the "rule" is not a valid generalization. But that is not how many people understand this expression.)
Thanks to their difficult jobs, police officers often encounter troublesome situations and people. If these situations involve racial minorities, some officers may subconsciously consider them proof that racial minorities are inherently lawbreakers.
They don't consider the fact that this is not a random cross section of minority people. If they then stereotype by assuming that when you've seen one person of that race you've seen them all, this reinforce any tendency to bigotry they might have.
Encounters with members of that racial minority who are decent, law-abiding, responsible citizens are no antidote if the officer brushes them off as "atypical." Such officers may see trouble whenever encountering a member of that minority, with troubling consequences like traffic stops for "driving while black."
The confirmation bias of white supremacy believers and bigoted police officers is fairly well understood and often discussed. But observers have shied away from also applying the concept of confirmation bias to members of racial minorities.
Caution here is wise, since bringing up this aspect of the subject invites accusations of "blaming the victim." But there is no evidence that members of racial minorities are less likely to suffer from confirmation bias than anybody else.
Encounters with bad cops, and knowledge of the experience of other minority people with bad cops, may suggest that all cops are bad — a conclusion permitted only by stereotyping all police on the basis of experience with some police.
Likewise, experience with white bigots can become a basis for considering all white people to be bigots and for interpreting even innocuous comments as microaggressions.
People who believe either of these excess generalizations may act in ways which harm their own interests. Such actions may turn their expectations into self-fulfilling prophecies, bringing out the worst rather than the best in white people and police officers with whom they interact. Unfortunately, this will confirm the expectations of all involved parties.
All of us would do well to resist interpreting situations we encounter in ways which assume the worst about the people with whom we are interacting.
By assuming the best of other people, by interpreting ambiguous situations as favorably as possible to other people, people of all races can contribute to putting racism behind us.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966 and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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