Monday, August 18, 2008

If Obama were to lose the Presidency in 2008 it will largely be because of his race, and no one will realize it

This weekend I was able to do a vacation assisted finish of the book, Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. This was such a remarkable book at so many levels. . I am sure you have seen or heard of or even read this book. It has been on the best seller list, you probably passed it at the bookstore and saw the innovative title and interesting book cover and wondered a bit about it. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the author’s previous book, “The Tipping Point”. I know I had, I think I heard a little interview with the author on the radio, or I at least have some vague memory of having done so.

I really love this book because it hit on so many issues that I'm both very interested in and have thought a lot about. The book also brings up some rather startling new pieces of information I have never once considered, which is always a good thing.

The book, in essence, is about how powerful our subconscious is in helping us make decisions and influencing the way we perceive situations outside of our immediate awareness. The book spends some time describing some remarkable examples of this:

1. A former tennis star and remarkable tennis coach who has been in the sport for decades who was able to tell exactly when a tennis player was about to double fault at the moment just before the contact with the ball is made.

2. A psychologist who has spent countless hours studying video taped conversations of married couples trying to spot subtle signs in the conversation, tone of voice, expressions on the face of trouble in their marriage. How they can predict with I believe 96% accuracy whether a marriage will succeed or fail based solely on a video recorded conversation regarding some issue in the marriage.

3. How a fireman is able to quickly assess the conditions of a fire ravaged room, and without being able to completely pinpoint why, knows immediately something is wrong, retreats from the room just as the floor collapses.

The author Malcolm Gladwell describes this almost sixth sense as thin slicing. The ability to quickly scan the situation allowing the brain behind a literal locked door outside the perception of conscious thought, make surprisingly complex and at times wildly accurate judgments about the situation.

This is all very interesting to me because as a Mormon, we spend a lot of time talking about this sixth sense which we know to be aided by the whisperings from Heaven above helping us along. But of course, spiritual explanations do not cover it for me... We live our rather complex lives absorbing a lot of information, all of this gets stored, very little of it is easily retrieved in our conscious mind, much of it is available, or so it seems, for our subconscious to gather, process, and make rapid fire and use to provide context for our present, in the moment situations.

This thin-slicing is a necessity, in fact, for a soldier in a time of war, for a police officer or an athlete or for all of us as we perform in real-time, as we interact with others, reading their minds by reading emotions and fleeting expressions that just so up imperceptibly on their faces...

But of course, there's a dark side to it as well. As we feed our soul with garbage and misinformation, we develop fears, prejudice, and just flat out wrong stereotypes.

In the book, Gladwell spends a lot of time on the topic of race, making it crystal clear how difficult it is get succeed as a black man in America:

Implicit Association Test (IAT)

There’s a category of tests called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) designed to measure how much we correlate certain groups with each other. The book describes how we are programmed to correlate women more closely with home and family and men more closely with work and career. More controversially, we also are more prone to associate black men with bad emotions like evil or hurt, and white men with good feelings. Try it for yourself, the link to take this particular test is:

I just took it and I'm ashamed to say that I showed to have a strong preference for European Americans over African Americans which is extremely disturbing to me... To my defense I think I probably gamed the system a little too much trying to prove a point for this blog, but I do admit that it was easier to group black with negative words and white with positive words. I think there is more than race to this. The color black is often associated with evil and vice versa. I really believe that had something to do with the score.

Also, while I do have one black friend currently, and I have had black friends in the past, I would have scored better on the test if I have had more rich associations with black people in my life. My mission, in heart of Alabama, was of course, a long time ago. I'm hoping I would have scored much better on the test if I took it while I was serving... But still, its incredibly disturbing.

But I'm not alone, in fact the author himself (who is half black by the way), tested a preference for European Americans:

“It turns out that more than 80 percent of all those who have ever taken the test end up having pro-white associations, meaning that it takes them measurably longer to complete answers when they are required to put good words into the 'Black' category than whey they are required to link bad things with black people”. (p 84)

Does this matter?

“If you have a strongly pro-white pattern of associations, for example, there is evidence that will affect the way you behave in the presence of a black person. It’s not going to affect what you’ll choose to say or feel or do. In all likelihood you won’t be aware that you’re behaving any differently than you would around a white person. But chances are you’ll lean forward a little less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a bit less. Does that matter? Of course it does. Suppose the conversation is a job interview. And suppose the applicant is a black man. He’s going to pick up on that uncertainty and distance, and that may well make him a little less certain of himself, a little less confident, and a little less friendly. An what will you think then? You may well get a gut feeling that the applicant doesn’t really have what it takes, or maybe that he is a bit standoffish, or maybe that he doesn’t really want the job. What this unconscious first impression will do, in other words, is throw the interview hopelessly off course.”

He goes on to site a study that shows black men and women are more likely to get quoted a higher starting price when negotiating for a car than white men. And even after intense negotiation they are only able to get it down to a price still higher than the start price quoted to white men.

Or another example, when a black person is asked to identify their race before they take the GRE (a standardized test for graduate school admission), they end up doing notably worse on the test than when they are not asked the question.

Also, he sites the more obvious and depressing statistics about incarceration rates of black men:

“One of the striking characteristics of the criminal justice system in the United States is how much more likely blacks are to be arrested and convicted and imprisoned for crimes than whites are. I’m not talking here about racial differences in overall crime rates. What I’m talking about is this: if, for example, a white man and a black man are charged with the identical drug-related crime, the black man is far more likely than the white man to go to jail. How much more likely? Here is an excerpt from a recent report by the nonprofit group Human Rights atch: ‘Nationwide, the rate of drug admissions to state prison for black men is thirteen times greater than the rate for white men. In ten states black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at rates that are 26 to 57 times greater than those of white men in the same state. In Ilinois, for example, the state with the highest rate of black male drug offender admissions to prison, a black man is 57 times more likey to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man”.

And I've heard statistics like this before. How two neighborhoods that in all other ways are equal, the black neighborhood will be considered to be more blighted by both blacks and whites than the white neighborhood.

Barack Obama reminds me so much of the character played by Sidney Portier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where the main character was so completely perfect in every way possible except that he was of the wrong race.

Obviously, Barack Obama is not perfect in every way. His main flaw is his inexperience at the national level, but he is such a completely skilled politician. His views are relevant, his speeches have depth that comes from serious thought, and are inspirationally delivered. And the conditions are absolutely perfect for a Democrat to win the presidency.

But John McCain continues to poll close to Obama, and its because too many people are not paying enough attention and as result, thin slicing are leading them to make, in my view, the completely wrong choice. They are letting negative stereotypes get in the way, and it doesn't help when there are so many ridiculous e-mails floating around playing on those fears...

So, most people feel that America has largely moved beyond racisim, and its true, in our conscious lives, very few of us believe that one race is superior in any way to another. Our laws, after years of struggle, finally reflect that. But we are still a country dealing with racism in very deep and significant ways, and the signs of this are all around us.

1 comment:

Davey said...

I took the dumb test and scored the same thing, strong preference for Euro. Dang it all.

Davey loves that Malcolm guy, he's read several articles by him.

Thanks for the interesting post. I hope you're not right.