Each of us carries around a mental map of the world in our heads. Not a geographic map but a map of the social world. These maps are shortcuts that enable us to navigate life with the least amount of time and stress and we depend upon them to get us through successfully. We simply couldn’t exist if we needed to assess every situation as though it were for the first time. One thing reminds us of something we’ve already encountered and that’s good enough most of the time. This kind of associative memory works as a general rule.
So, for example, we have notions of what teachers and librarians are like, what politicians are like, and what criminals and shysters look like. These images come instantly to mind when we hear about people in those positions, our opinions pre-cut.
More important than an enumeration of characteristics, though, are images that are morally laden. We expect librarians to be honest people, for example. And we expect criminals to look a certain way. These preconceptions shape how we react to someone we meet, hear or read about. We have many opinions about people even before we meet them and when we finally do get to meet them, our opinions about them are molded in large part by our preconceptions. Criminal librarians don’t match our expectations; we are surprised by altruistic behavior from someone with sleeve tattoos. Honest people look a certain way, as do shady ones, our brains inform us.
Sometimes these biases are rooted in reality; other times they are products of social prejudice. In either case, when we have them—and we all do—we act on them instantly. It takes hard work to overcome them and give each person a fresh, unbiased look, as this calls on the part of the brain that processes rational thought.
Making this situation potentially explosive in another piece of information about our psychology. Our brains are also wired to receive bad news more rapidly than good. Angry faces are processed faster than happy ones. Daniel Kahneman writes, “Some experimenters have reported that an angry face ‘pops out’ of a crowd of happy faces, but a single happy face does not stand out in an angry crowd. The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce... No comparably rapid mechanism for recognizing good news has been detected.”
The threat doesn’t even need to be real. Symbols will do. The words ‘war’ and ‘crime’ are processed faster than ‘peace’ and ‘love,’ for example.
There may be studies that I am unaware of, but my guess is that for many whites, the word African-American (or black) registers more like ‘war’ and ‘crime’ than ‘peace’ and ‘love,’ and that for African-Americans, ‘white person’ and ‘police’ are registered more quickly than ‘happy’ words. I also suspect that for whites, black faces pop out faster in a crowd than white faces and the reverse for blacks.
You don’t need to believe that the killer of Trayvon Martin was racially motivated to conclude that how blacks are perceived in our society has something to do with the incident. A black man in a white neighborhood pops out; a young man on foot in a gated community pops out; someone wearing a hoodie in a middle-class neighborhood pops out.
All these are prompts in the minds of middle-class whites that danger is afoot. This may be totally wrong, but the brain reacts quickly to danger. Then put a gun in the hands of the person who feels endangered and create laws that offer wide latitude for self-defense and you have the recipe for tragedy.
Law courts and the court of public opinion will determine the fate of Trayvon Martin’s killer. But we have to get deeper into human psychology to move on so that each person, no matter the color or attire, is judged singly and not automatically perceived as a threat.
Note: Although he doesn’t address racism, my thoughts were inspired by the work of Daniel Kahneman and others, which are reported in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.