FIVE REASONS WHY RACISM IS SUCH A SLIPPERY SLOPE FOR THE BRAIN

Why would the president of the University of Missouri system say the issue of racist behaviors against the system’s students was going to be taken up next April when one of his students was on a hungry strike that would kill him much earlier?

Why would the same tone-deaf administrator react lukewarmly—to put it generously—to a claim by the “Mizzou” student body president (who is black and gay) that he was being verbally abused (repeatedly) by someone riding in a pickup truck?

Why would this same gent refuse to get out of his car and have a conversation with students protesting racial behavior on campus at a homecoming parade?

Why would someone take feces and draw a swastika on a university dormitory wall?

Why did it take a strike by 30 (of the team’s 84 scholarship holders, 58 of whom are African-American) of UM’s variety football players that would cost the school $1 million in default fees if this weekend’s BYU game was cancelled to get anyone in power to take notice much of any of this?

Why . . .why . . . why? Good questions to put to the human brain, so let’s do so. Here are key discoveries we’ve made about the brain and racism, most of them quite recently:

Image of 1Biologically, racism seems to stem from the brain’s built-in tendency to warn us to stay away from parts of the environment that are threatening. The culprit is an almond-shaped cluster of neurons called the amygdala. It is located close to the center of our brain. It mediates fear conditioning by controlling a lot of the brain’s emotional processes. We run into problems—such as racism—because the amygdala works very fast, far more rapidly that our conscious thinking.

Image of 2We like to think that our brains are born as “blank slates.” This would mean none of us are racists or sexists or homophobic at birth. But even if we are not, prejudice is lurking not far behind. Infants as young as three months are already showing preferences for faces from the same racial background. If for no other reason, this is because the people around them lose no time in “programming” their newborns with their own biases and preferences when it comes to people.

Image of 3Fortunately, what the brain gives, the brain can also take away. This gets a bit tricky, so follow closely. How the brain is going to respond to a racially excited amygdala that has been programmed by its environment is a two-step dance. A part of the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) is first to detect a person is reacting negatively to an out-group member. The ACC passes along the issue to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Good results can follow if, for example, a person has been made aware of their racial bias toward people who aren’t like them because this can change how the DLPFC reacts.

Image of 4There’s a strong case to be made that the University of Missouri’s two top administrators ignored the grievances of their African-American students because the executives were unaware of their prejudices. Rinku Sin, author of The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization, explains, “Our judgments about people don’t qualify as prejudices because our brains are happy enough to have a coherent story about ‘those people’.” Social psychologists call this brain failing “implicit prejudice.” Its impact can be stunning. For example, one survey a week after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, 30 percent of white respondents were unhappy with the verdict compared to 86 percent of African-Americans. (It only takes about ten minutes to measure your own implicit biases on race. Go here.)

Image of 5Will millions of brains in America use the events at the University of Missouri to a challenge their own (implicit) racially tinged brain biases? It would be nice to think so but almost certainly not. Because—let’s say it again—they (we!) won’t do this because we (they) don’t think they are racially biased. One more time: what makes this such a difficult thing to change at a fundamental level is that the amygdala-activated part of our brain is lightning quick, intuitive and, often, arrogant. And let it be said, entrenched in power, in a lot more places than the executive suite at the University of Missouri. We shouldn’t give up trying to strengthen, educate and pressure our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) to be more “moral.” And we can acknowledge that we’ve made some progress. But our brain can be a pesky critter. It can easily use a self-perceived and self-congratulatory “arc of improvement” on racial issues as just another implicit bias to keep it from responding to the injustices around it.

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