After Bundy and Sterling, What Next?

“As a general rule, things don’t end well if your sentence starts, ‘Let me tell you something I know about the Negro’,” President Obama observed in skewering infamous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy during Saturday night’s White House correspondents’ dinner. With Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling recently having been exposed for even more inane remarks on race than those of Bundy and President Obama’s approval ratings at an all-time low, it’s as good of a time as any to consider race in today’s society.

National research shows that racism is on the decline. It is by no means eliminated, but clearly racist views continue trending down. The percentage of whites stating they would oppose a close relative marrying a black person has declined from nearly 70% to about 25% just since 1990. Fewer than 10 percent of white Americans say they would not vote for a black President, according to data pulled from the General Social Survey conducted since the early 1970s by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. (Note: A small, but statistically significant difference in racial attitudes exists between white Republicans and white Democrats, according to data pulled from the Social Survey and worth reading at FiveThirtyEight.com.)

While some elements of multi-directional racial fear and hatred continue, ignorance remains one of two core racial problems. Affinity bias is its often-neglected and attention-deserving counterpart.

Ignorance can, of course, be eliminated over time by education, including the ability to live, work and interact with members of various races. While it is hard to know for certain what contributed most to the decline in racism detected by the General Social Survey since the 1970s, this decline came at a time when America was increasingly integrating in its schools, work and homes. Unfortunately, this integration trend has begun reversing and voluntary re-segregation is occurring in many cities, leading to more racial and ethnic isolation. In some states and cities, schools are more segregated than they were prior to the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Today’s re-segregation threatens to stall important improvement and could reverse the progress against racism made over the past 40 years. I’m particularly disturbed by political leaders who are driving racial divisions to ensure their next reelection or support their organization’s fundraising. The cost of acrimony they incite could be extraordinary damage on future generations.

Alleviating ignorance solves only part of the problem. Openly addressing affinity biases is a second critical and vastly ignored opportunity to neutralize the impact of race on societal success.

New research conducted by Katherine Milkman from The University of Pennsylvania, Modupe Akinola from Columbia University and Dolly Chugh from New York University shows that even highly educated university professors are subject to racial and gender bias when asked for something as simple as taking the time to meet with prospective PhD candidates. White male professors, and some others, were more likely to agree to meet with candidates if the name at the bottom of the otherwise identical email invitation sounded like it belonged to a white male. While there is a great deal of value to be derived from reading the study, it ignores an obvious question of whether those operating in fields where affinity bias is regularly taught and consciously, routinely considered correlate with the fields showing the least bias. The study’s authors appear a bit anxious to ascribe regrettable outcomes to evil intent, perhaps ignoring the opportunity to recommend simple solutions.

While there are still racists in America of every race and ethnicity, we could make our greatest progress as a society if the well intended among us consciously consider and counteract our affinity biases without fear of being deemed a racist (this concept applies to people of all races and ethnicities). A personal example of what I’m suggesting may help illustrate.

Three weeks ago, it started to rain while I was sitting at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Wheaton, Illinois working on a novel that contemplates a Golden Rule society. I closed my computer, folded my chair and jogged to a nearby picnic shelter. As soon as I got under the shelter, I noticed one other person. An African American man I assumed was a teenager was the only other person sitting under the shelter. He wore sunglasses even though it had long been cloudy, held an older phone up to his ear and was cradling a bag in one hand. The bag he was carrying and the sunglasses raised my concern. I questioned myself on whether I was also reacting to his race in a place where I only occasionally see African Americans engaged in the fishing, picnicking and walking common in this preserve.

As soon as I sat down and opened my computer, I heard the young man say, “there’s a guy here. I’ll talk to him.” I wondered why my presence would warrant his concern or interest. Blackwell is a large forest preserve at 1,400 acres, though almost no one was there on that weekday with less than pleasant weather. I considered whether I had walked into the middle of some kind of illicit deal and he might think I’m a client he hasn’t met. It would have been easy enough for me to close my computer, re-fold my chair and get to my car to head out, but I decided that my concern was based on very likely unfounded fears. I sat there and started writing.

Minutes later, Jay (not his real name) hung up his phone and yelled over to explain his predicament, without moving from the picnic bench seat he occupied. It turns out that a relative had gotten angry, driven him there and dropped him off with only his phone and a thin jacket. It was getting cold out. Jay, I discovered, is blind. The sunglasses now made sense. His bag held the equipment for an older phone that was easier for him to use than today’s mobile phones. He didn’t even know where he was and had been talking to his wife to tell her she needed to find him. After talking to Jay for several minutes and telling him where he was, he took a chance, asking if I could help. I agreed to take him to the Wheaton Public Library, where he could at least be warm as he waited for his wife, walked him into the facility and left him with a bit of cash in case he ended up needing train, taxi or dinner money. I acted in a way that fits with my values. Would I have instinctively reacted the same way if I didn’t consider my affinity biases? I don’t know.

It’s important that we all counter instinctive reactions by consciously asking ourselves if race or gender is playing a role in our decisions or actions. Affinity biases begin at birth (see Are Babies Racist?). They can be countered in part through education, and in part through conscious attention to ensure we are not adjusting how we treats others if they are different from us in superficial ways. Does it make me racist that this, at times, requires conscious thought? If it does, then we are all racists and the word loses the meaning needed to address people like Donald Sterling.

The professors in the university study who did not agree to meet with students of different races or genders are very unlikely to all or even mostly be racists. More likely, they have not personally adopted questions they ask themselves regularly to ensure they counter innate human affinity biases in how they interact with students, particularly as they go about meeting work and home demands and deal with unexpected requests.

With Sterling and Bundy having brought discussion of race back to the national agenda, what should we do next? I believe we need to accept that the vast majority of Americans want to act properly on race and gender. If we can encourage this vast majority to ask ourselves questions to ensure we don’t use affinity biases to prevent the most deserving from achieving their dreams, we will draw the nation back together, and perhaps begin to again voluntarily integrate and unite. It might not make for great fundraising to assume positive intent among most people, but it does lead to the fastest progress.

If you are interested in further considering issues of race, I joined a bunch of white guys and one white woman in discussing the topic yesterday (talk about affinity bias). The first hour of The Ignorance Equation covers a wide range of opinions on the issue, including the role ignorance plays in racial relations. The rest of the show is also good, but covers other topics.

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