Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Black, me?

Nicholas Kristof has done yeoman's work patiently documenting the persistence of pervasive racial prejudice in American life. In a series of columns, he has presented the evidence that African Americans face discrimination in hriring, housing, education, policing and sentencing. He's also invited readers to take a self-administered test charting our own unconscious biases -- which, he suggests, are basically hard-wired into human tribal psychology (not specific prejudices, but mistrust of out-groups).

Political scientists (e.g., Brendan Nyhan) tell us, however, that beliefs in which people are emotionally invested are rarely susceptible to facts. In fact, people tend to double down on their beliefs when confronted with facts that contradict them. That tendency often hovers in the back of my mind when I read Kristof's columns in this series -- or recall them, as I did today while reading this corrective history-via-op-ed of African American response to the 1994 crime bill.

That train of thought led me to recall Black Like Me, the 1959 account of a white man, journalist John Howard Griffin, who disguised himself as black (via large oral doses of a drug that changed his skin color) and traveled on buses throughout the deep south for six weeks. Griffin learned quickly and chronicled effectively what it was like to be viewed -- and treated --as black under Jim Crow.

My thought was this: suppose it were part of our education to have everyone safely disguise their ethnicity for a week, or a day, or an hour, and mingle in a reasonably populated area. For white Americans, I suspect that spending ten minutes in a black skin on a crowded street or in a crowded room might have more effect than all the studies documenting biased response to resumes, housing applications, car purchases, etc. The experience might even make a dent in our unconscious biases, if the looks, body language, speech and action that another skin color attract were directed at us.

Does the widely derided racial sensitivity training ever include an exercise like this? I'm assuming that short-term disguises can be safely assumed. While it's admittedly hard to imagine a school system adopting such an exercise, it would be great training for cops, wouldn't it?

1 comment:

  1. it would be great training for cops, wouldn't it?

    Why ....yes it would!