Monday, March 7, 2011

Are we born racist?

The recent sermon below from the First Universalist Church of Youngstown Ohio references some of the systemic and economic underpinnings of racism of America. It also suggests (based on neurological research) that the brain is hard wired to discern (and be wary of) "differences" as part of the fight or flight response system of the amygdala part of the brain. See also: Are We Born Racist? New Insights From Neuroscience and Positive Psychology by Jason Marsh, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Jeremy Adam Smith.

Fortunately, hard wired and learned prejudice can be overcome with positive messages and greater understanding of the way oppression works.

The point is that, whether we are born racist or it insidiously emerges through cultural and other messages that are learned after birth, if we do not own our racism - we inflict it.

Sermon: Are We Born Racist?

January 16, 2011

Matt Alspaugh

Are we born racist? Do we have some innate genetic quality that predisposes us toward bias based on skin color? This is a hard topic to take on. I must admit didn't want to take it up this Sunday for Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. day, and yesterday was King's birthday.

But King's work went far beyond race and civil rights, and I want to explore his legacy, but not today. But, calendar challenged as I am, I somehow ended up scheduling this topic, racism, on this day.

I don't want to deny that racism and xenophobia have strong systemic causes. We live in a society that has nationalism and race and racism embedded deep in it. When we think of the interconnected web of existence of which we are a part, (our seventh principle) we need to realize that that interconnected web includes both good and evil. The evil of racism is built into our social and cultural network, and has been with us for centuries.

Skin color racism has not always been with us. In her book, "Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance, and How They Fall", Amy Chua describes how the Roman Empire contended with xenophobia and racism. She notes, "Racism in the modern sense did not exist in Rome. There is little evidence that Romans saw light skin as superior to dark skin, or vice versa."[1] Rather, she notes "the Romans had a particular distaste for peoples of excessive size and height"[2], who they believed were of inferior intelligence.

In America, as in much of the Western World, the development of racism had an economic basis. The UU theologian Thandeka points out that this was a consequence of Southern land-owners doing the economics, and finding that "slaves, though twice the price of purchase of indentured servants, [were] a better long-term investment; both they and their progeny would be in servitude for life, and the amount of time and work extracted from them would be extreme."[3] What this did, however, was decrease work prospects for white indentured servants at the end of their contacts, and these 'freedmen' became a threat to the system. They could ally with black slaves to demand freedom and economic benefits. This did in fact happen. In Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, a mixed group of lower-class whites and slaves attacked and burned Jamestown to the ground.

The elites had to resolve this. The solution to this was racism -- a way to artificially elevate poor whites with respect to blacks. Thandeka notes, "Racial contempt would function as a wall between poor whites and blacks protecting masters and their slave-produced wealth from both lower-class whites and slaves."[4] Like many economic decisions of the 'greed is good' variety, this was a deal with the devil, and as we know, the follow-on consequences have been costly, destructive and difficult to correct, even to this day.

I find it amusing that the representatives who elected to read the Constitution as part of the opening of Congress chose not to read certain parts, rationalizing that those parts were overruled by later amendment.[5] Parts like Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, which specifies that slaves, as 'other persons' be counted as three-fifths of a person for representation and taxation purposes.[6] I have no doubt that the choice to not read these sections was made largely out of desire that those parts would just go away.

And Carole tells me that the state of Ohio did not finally ratify the 14th amendment to the constitution, giving black citizenship and basic rights, until 2003.

Even the rational process that is science has been corrupted by racism. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's book "The Mismeasure of Man" explores how some scientists used craniometry -- the measure of brain case size as an argument that race and intelligence were connected. When craniometry was discredited, IQ measurement was used in the same way.[7]

I want to talk today not so much of structural or institutional racism, racism in society, but rather I want to tussle with a harder topic, which is my own racism. This is a bit of a confessional: perhaps some of you may see your own selves in my stories, or not; that is up to you.

I recognize that I am racist. I know this is true! I took the test! Yes, there's a test -- more about that in a moment. But first let me be clear, I don't mean that I espouse white supremacy or anything like that. I simply know I notice skin-tones and make judgments based on such data, not always good judgments.

For about a decade, researchers at Harvard have been exploring race and other forms of bias with a tool called the Implicit Association Test.[8] This is the test I took. You can take it as well on your computer. Just 'google' for the words 'implicit association' and the research website will be the top hit. Or, you can go on our website, UUYO.ORG this afternoon, and find this sermon, which will have the link.

This is how it works. It's a bit like a computer game. After entering some demographic information, you are presented with a screen where you are shown images of black and white faces, intermixed with positive and negative words, words like joy, wonderful, terrible, awful. You are asked to rapidly, as fast as possible, push either the 'e' key or the 'i' key to assign the word or picture to the left or right category. The basic claim is that your reaction time is faster when the association of the words and pictures is strong for you. So if you have a bias toward seeing white skinned people in a positive way, you'll be very fast at the keyboard when both the positive words and the whites are assigned to, say the 'i' key. And that is what happened for me. The test indicated I had a bias toward white preference. Like Malcolm Gladwell, who in his book Blink, describes taking the test several times, and he says, "the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy".[9] I too have a bit of a sense of creepiness or shame about my result.

Now I know that my nature is more complex than just a test result. I know that, though I don't want to admit it, I encounter people differently based on skin color. I know that this is part of my conditioning in this culture, especially as a kid growing up in the South. I find even today when I travel to parts of the South, or even hear certain Southern accents, I get an uneasy, pit of the stomach feeling that I know is connected to unconscious experience reaching back to childhood. This queasiness is an unsafe feeling, a sense that I have to be careful in what I say or do, lest I transgress the unwritten code of race that permeated my childhood.

In her book, "Learning to be White", Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka recounts many stories that white people told her of how, as children, they learned the hidden and shame-based rules of race. Of bringing home African-American playmates to find the parents uncomfortable but without explanation. Of listening to parents make racist comments and feeling uncertain and confused. Of finding parents outraged because they brought home blacks as visitors or dates. Of being forced to choose between terminating an African-American friendship and losing white friends.

Carole told her story of bringing home her husband-to-be to meet her mother, and learning that her mother's cultural conditioning got the best of her higher aspirations. Carole was able to prevail and her mother expanded her world and Carole deepened her relationship with her father as a result.

Sometimes our discomfort around race can play out in interesting ways. A story from my more recent past. When I was in seminary, my class included two amazing and committed African-American men; both are doing good ministry in the UU movement now. I worked with one of them, Leon, on one of our weekly chapel services. These chapel services often pushed the edges of what good worship could be.

Anyway, this particular service was titled "Stress Fracture", and the theme was conflict. As we talked about the theme it became apparent that we needed to confront race as one of the conflicts, and in particular, Leon's sense that I and other white classmates coddled him, put up with his lack of followthrough at times. I had never talked with him about how I felt when he had failed to complete a project we had promised the president of the school, and I had to finish it by myself at the last minute.

I realized my conditioning as a good liberal white guy caused me to silently put up with such behavior without calling Leon on it. Leon reminded me that being called out was what he needed in order to be fully included, to feel fully cared about and cared for. We acted this conflict out in the worship, given us a chance to put this realization out there, for the other classmates as well as for me.

Much of my training on anti-racism has focused on the theological or ethical basis for countering racism. It has been largely prescriptive, moving from ethical precepts like our first principal in Unitarian Universalism, 'Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person', to more specific guidelines and approaches. Words like shame or guilt of confession come up frequently. I've even talked today of admitting my own racism, and of shame.

The book from which I plagiarized the title of this sermon, "Are We Born Racist?" goes beyond the theological and ethical arguments in an exciting way. The selections in this anthology explore racism in the context of positive psychology, that is, the psychology of normal human behavior.

In one study, researchers use functional MRI to understand brain activity as people encounter race-based situations. Ohio State researcher William Cunningham examined the activity of the amygdala as persons viewed images of black and white faces. Now the amygdala is a very primitive, evolutionarily old part of the brain which is involved in making and remembering quick, emotional decisions -- fight or flight. This research team found that "among whites, black faces trigger amygdala activity only when those faces were seen for a length of time (thirty milliseconds) so short that it amounts to subconscious exposure."[10] However, longer exposure to the images, about than half a second, engaged higher level parts of the brain, "areas associated with inhibition and control. It was as if, in less than half a second, their brains were reining in unwanted prejudices."[11] Further, there is evidence that we can develop this ability to rein in prejudice, and become more egalitarian through practice.[12]

It's well known that people living in oppressed conditions, whether due to racism or socioeconomic class, face increased stress, and their body chemistry changes in unhealthy ways, leading to hypertension, diabetes, and immunological problems.[13]

What is surprising to me is that several studies have shown that people with high levels of racial prejudice also face increased stress whenever they interact with people of other races. Their body chemistry also changes, just as experienced by oppressed people. This is a path to cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and other health problems.[14] So working to reduce one's own embedded racism may provide personal health benefits.

Just a few other interesting findings from psychological research: One research group presented both black and white college students with a standardized test based on the GRE. In one arm of the study, the researchers told the students this was a test of intellectual ability, and in the other arm, they told the students that this was merely a problem solving study, and the test was not on intellectual ability. The result was that blacks did more poorly than whites when cued on intellectual ability, but they preformed equally well when not cued. Similar studies with other groups -- think women and math skills -- yield similar results -- the mere fact that the culture stereotypes a certain group can insidiously affect that group's performance.

Finally, much work has been done trying to understand how people of different races can best work together in teams. It's a complex situation. In one study, white people's attempts to be "strategically color-blind", avoiding race comments, caused black participants to become suspicious of the whites' motives.[15],[16] In other situations, expecting team members to censor offensive language increased performance in a mixed groups. The lessons emerging are that diverse teams work best when they have larger goals that everyone is focused on, and plenty of time and encouragement for talking and understanding one another.

So is there hope for racist people like me? Is there hope for a society like ours with its embedded racism? I think this new scientific work affirms that yes, there is hope. We have work to do, in our own hearts and minds as well as in the society we live in.

And in this work, let us remember words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. ... Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. …

[And] When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of now way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.[17]

May it be so.


[1] Amy Chua, "Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance, and How They Fall", 2007, p. 41.

[2] ibid. p. 42.

[3] Thandeka, "Learning to be White", p. 44.

[4] ibid. p. 46.



[7] Stephen Jay Gould "The Mismeasure of Man", 1996, p. 52.


[9] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, 2005, p. 81.

[10] Susan Fiske in "Are We Born Racist?", 2010, p. 12

[11] ibid.

[12] David Amodio in "Are We Born Racist?", p. 50

[13] Eve Ekman & Jeremy Adam Smith, in "Are We Born Racist?", p. 35

[14] Elizabeth Page Gould, in "Are We Born Racist?", pp. 42-43

[15] Dottie Blias in "Are We Born Racist?", p. 73



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