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Am I racially biased? Yes. In a nice 'moderate' way

As a young reporter in Chicago, I used to visit a neighborhood police station and flip through paper police reports, seeking fodder for our police blotter.

Sitting in the records room one morning, I overheard a white police officer describing how his grandmother combed through the newspaper every day holding a razor blade. Anytime she saw a photo with black faces in it, she would cut out the black faces with the razor blade. After she finished the paper, she would drop all the little black face scraps into an ashtray and burn them.

The image stuck with me.

So did other comments from the officer, indicating he retained a strong racial bias, though he was probably a vast improvement over his grandmother.

So I acknowledge — in the wake of white police officers killing unarmed black men not just recently but all the way back to Aaron Campbell and others in Portland — that yes, blatantly racist white cops exist.

But I’d like to focus for a moment on the non-racist white officers, like those I’ve met in Forest Grove, Hillsboro and Cornelius.

I’m thinking of them — and of myself — because of the book, “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” by David Eagleman, who in one section describes specially devised computer tasks that can tease out our biases.

In one bias test, you sit in front of a screen with your cursor positioned at the bottom and with “like” and “dislike” buttons in opposite upper corners. When a word (the name of a religion or race, for instance) appears in the middle of the screen, you must move the cursor as quickly as possible to the “like” or “dislike” button, depending on how you feel about the word.

“What you don’t realize is that the exact trajectory of your mouse movement is being recorded — every position at every moment. By analyzing the path your mouse traveled, researchers can detect whether your motor system started moving toward one button before other cognitive systems kicked into gear and drove it toward the other response,” Eagleman writes.

So even if you answered “like,” it may be that your cursor actually twitched toward the “dislike” button first, “before it got back on track for the more socially appropriate response.”

I like those experiments because they’re not blaming or judgmental. They look at cells and firing synapses, not the moral history behind them.

As a self-proclaimed, open-minded white person, I’d like to think I would “pass” the bias tests. But I’m not sure.

To start with, we’ve all got 40,000 years of evolutionary history working against racial harmony, carried over from a time when the ability to instantly categorize and reject potential threats—whether poisonous snakes or invaders from a different tribe — was critical to Homo sapiens’ survival.

We’ve also got centuries of racial hatred in our own country, starting with killings, whippings, torture, condescension and a general dehumanization so intense its ramifications still pinball around the country today.

For another thing, many of us have complicated personal histories.

I grew up with a dad who loved Martin Luther King, and who was preaching to me about racial injustice when I was in kindergarten. I now have my own collection of favorite King quotes and biographies and sermon reprints — sitting alongside that other civil rights masterpiece, “The Autobiography of Malcom X.”

But I also remember my mom’s (probably realistic) fear of certain black-populated, crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods; and the way she and her parents would refer to black people as “them” and “they” — not hatefully, but in a separating, patronizing way.

I remember the negative societal messages that came to me through crime dramas and other television shows — all those black “bad guys” shooting at white “good guys.”

So which part of me would show up to take the bias test?

In real-life testimony from various white police officers about why they shot the black men they killed, there is common reference to that moment when they had to make “split-second judgments” about whether the suspect might be reaching for a gun or lunging forward with a knife and about how to respond.

Would their judgments be different for a black person than a white person?

Bias tests show that our brains work in complicated, subconscious, mysterious ways that we have far less control over than we imagine.

And that’s the scary part — if you’re a black man.

Because brain science indicates you could possibly fall victim to not just racist white police officers, but to decent officers who try to recognize and repel any racist impulses ...

If they have time to do so ...

If they’re not facing a split-second decision ...

With their finger not on the clicker of a mouse but on the trigger of a gun.

Author update: I took the test! Two days after writing this column, I came across a fantastic article online by Chris Mooney, “How Our Brains Perceive Race,” that explored these same issues, but much more in-depth and with links to the bias tests. Mooney, in fact, took the tests himself and wrote about the experience. After reading his story, I took two tests for racial bias — and discovered I seem to have a “moderate automatic preference for European-Americans compared to African-Americans.” I also found I “moderately” more associate weapons with black Americans as compared to white Americans.

“Moderate” sounded like a nice, gentle word, until I looked at the categories of test results and found I was among 53 percent of test takers who “moderately or strongly” associated weapons with black Americans — compared to only 4 percent who similarly associated weapons with white Americans. Try it yourself. Tests are available at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.


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