The human unconscious is a mysterious thing. It’s so mysterious, in fact, that it may be the principal reason for recent accusations of racial profiling in police forces throughout the United States.
The unconscious has played a part in the continuous oppression of black people in our country for decades, resulting in the death and silent destruction of too many innocent people for too long. This article is an evolutionary account of where racism comes from, why it occurs and how we can start constructing proactive ways to fix it.
Black Oppression is Alive and Well, Admit It
But, before we can begin to fix it, we must do one thing. We must admit it.
Denial is the biggest part of racial issues in America and throughout the world today. Many white people have an extremely hard time understanding and admitting that we’ve been helped by and even (maybe unknowingly) supportive of racial oppression throughout our entire lives.
According to psychologist/author Daniel J. Levitin in The Organized Mind, “Racism is a form of negative social judgment that arises from a combination of belief perseverance, out-group bias, categorization error, and faulty inductive reasoning” (Levitin, 153). These are all unconscious social blunders that arise during our competition for reproduction and survival.
Out-group bias is a term for how people within a certain “in-group” (like white people) have a tendency to be less judgmental of the insiders and more judgmental of the outsiders (other races). As humans, we tend to form groups and then use them to make ourselves feel and appear to be more superior (Levitin 153-154). We’ve all done this kind of thing, haven’t we? Think back to your “clique” in high school: another form of out-group bias exemplified on a smaller scale. This is an innate tendency of survival of the fittest that furthers black oppression in our society.
Similarly, our brains often put us under a spell of inductive reasoning: when we take small observations, such as that an Australian man stole your wallet, and apply them to larger circumstances, such as that you then came to the conclusion that all Australians are thieves (Levitin 153-154). This conclusion obviously makes no sense.
Stop Making Excuses
Instead of acknowledging the existence of social errors in reasoning, we make excuses. White people say things like, “I’ve never contributed to racism, I’ve been a victim too, racism doesn’t exist anymore, and if I don’t see it, how could it actually be a thing?”
The answer to all of these questions and concerns is, simply, you’re white. America was built to favor white people: that’s what you refuse to see. We were segregated in this country less than 60 years ago. It’s no surprise that evolution has yet to fully adopt innate values of equality.
In comparison, there’s no surprise that criminal, economic, educational, and health systems in this country, along with evolution, have yet to evolve to envelop policies that favor all people. Natural selection hasn’t had enough time to perfect our evolutionary systems in regards to race.
After all, it takes generations and generations for evolution to adapt the traits and values it finds to be most beneficial for our survival and reproduction. Likewise, it’s going to be a long time before our brains stop continuously using systems that create instant bias in the face of fear and high-arousal, without us even knowing. This means we have to develop some way to help it along.
If You Are White, You Have Benefitted From White Supremacy
As a white person, I fully acknowledge that I have benefitted from white supremacy. I also admit that I have played a part in the further oppression of black people, even if unintentionally or indirectly. I’m not proud.
I would be lying, though, if I said I’ve never heard a racist joke, comment or serious explanation of why someone of a certain color acts a certain way. I would also be lying if I said I have always stood up for the oppressed in these situations. I haven’t. And, if you have been in a situation where someone has said something racist or you’ve seen something racist happen and didn’t say anything, you, too, have contributed to the further oppression of black people and minorities.
The truth is, every white person has likely contributed, even if unintentionally. Unfortunately, there are also people who have and continue to unquestionably contribute: blatant racists like Donald Trump and members of white supremacy groups like the KKK.
A Racist Encounter
Just last summer I hopped into a cab trying to catch a ferry out to the island I live on. As soon as I got in, the woman driving the cab began angrily spewing out racist comments. It was crazy. From what I could tell, she actually believed every ugly thing that was coming out of her repulsive mouth.
She said things like, “All black people should go back to Africa where they came from. Then maybe we wouldn’t have AIDS in this country.”
I was absolutely dumbfounded. I needed to get out of the car as soon as possible. I wanted to speak up. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs at the lady and run out of the car. The only excuse I have to support the fact that I didn’t do either of those things is that I was afraid. I actually remember thinking, if she can yell this kind of shit to a complete stranger, who knows what the hell this woman is capable of.
Although I still regret my reaction to the situation, I am glad I had the experience. It showed me, once and for all, that racism is alive and well. I already knew that, of course; but I had no idea there were tangible people that were so open and honest about being racist.
Overall, the experience opened my eyes to the idea that maybe there is a spectrum. Maybe, if there is a white lady contributing to racism by yelling blatantly racist comments to a complete stranger in a cab, then there are people (like me) everywhere who are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum: contributing to the problem without saying or doing anything. As it turns out, this seems to be the case.
Black Oppression and Natural Selection
Natural selection has been working on humans and their unconscious systems ever since the dawn of civilization, but it has a much different agenda than we have on a conscious level. Instead of acting under the belief that all humans are equal with the same right to live, vote and gain success, natural selection is guided by a relentless endeavor to create systems that are the most beneficial to our chances for reproduction and survival.
This evolutionary process involves first weighing the costs and benefits of having certain traits and values, then passing down those traits that were most beneficial to reproduction and survival in a lifetime on to the next generation. The difference in goals between the conscious and the unconscious often creates a disparity between how and why we believe we will handle certain situations and how and why we actually end up handling them.
Implicit Bias and Black Oppression
For example, policemen and women are being accused of racism more and more frequently in the workplace as of 2016. They seem to be killing black suspects much more frequently than white suspects, leading many to believe that policemen and women are acting out of blatant racism. This conclusion doesn’t appear to be very far off when you look at the statistics. According to Mintpress News, “police killed almost five black people per every million black residents of the U.S. in 2015, compared with about 2 per million for both white and Hispanic victims.”
What’s puzzling, though, is that many of the police accused in racially motivated killings do not have a history of conscious racist beliefs; meanwhile, they unquestionably react with racist tendencies in high-arousal situations. In order to understand why this universal bias is occurring, we have to learn how our unconscious systems attempt to guide us through situations. We have to understand how our unconscious leaves our conscious values on the back-burner in the midst of high-arousal, split-second decision-making.
Levitin says that when we hear about or witness someone doing something wrong or dangerous, we tend to make false conclusions that his or her actions are “predictable” of someone of that race or from that region of the world (Levitin, 153-155). After thousands of years of work, natural selection has found that our brains can’t handle processing all of the heaps of information we receive daily on a conscious level.
For this reason, it has created various task-specific sections of our brains that are always developing shortcuts to process and categorize the most beneficial information in the most efficient way. Its goal is to categorize information so that it’s easy to come back to in high-arousal, split-second situations that could affect our chances for reproduction and survival.
So, instead of processing and storing every bit of information we’re exposed to, our unconscious creates shortcuts for us, that, most of the time, we have no idea are being implemented. These shortcuts can be dangerous, often resulting in the creation of associations based on insubstantial, irrelevant human qualities such as color and nationality (Gladwell 221-229).
Physiological circumstances create complications for police and their suspects in highly dangerous situations as a result of these associations. According to psychologist/author Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, when humans reach a certain state of arousal (a heart rate of 145), we start to spiral into a sort of state of shock (Gladwell 221-229). This happens when our brains take a shortcut by turning off our logical reasoning and assuming unconscious control.
Once in control, our unconscious creates a split-second judgment and reaction. This is where policemen and women get into trouble. The shortcuts that take over in high-arousal, split-second situations, when a person’s heart rate goes above 145, cause them to make decisions that are completely reliant on faulty evolutionary associations and inductive reasoning (Gladwell 221-299).
The Case of Trayvon Martin
Let’s take the example of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Stanford, Florida. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was a neighborhood watch captain at the time of the incident. On the night of February 26th, 2012, Zimmerman made a 911 call to report what he said to be a “real suspicious black male” walking in the neighborhood (The Trayvon). Disregarding the 911 operator’s orders to stay in his vehicle, Zimmerman got out and followed Martin. Martin ran, but he eventually caught up. Moments later, cries for help were heard, shots were fired and Trayvon Martin’s life was gone forever (The Trayvon).
My question is, what the hell happened here? Zimmerman claimed that he committed the murder in self-defense. As it turns out, Martin was merely on the way home from 7-11 at the time of his murder (The Trayvon). He was also on the phone with his 16-year-old girlfriend at the time. The girl said she heard someone ask Martin what he was doing, to which he replied asking what the man was doing following him. Then, an altercation happened and the phone call was lost (Trayvon Martin).
Self-defense? What would you do if a stranger began following you in the dark, questioning your actions? Wouldn’t you be afraid? It sounds to me as though Martin was doing nothing wrong and Zimmerman suspected him for no apparent reason, resulting in an altercation that caused an innocent teenager’s death.
That night, Martin was carrying his cell phone, a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy. Zimmerman, an overzealous neighborhood watchman, pursued Martin because he was black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt (Trayvon Martin). Those are the clues that made Martin seem “suspicious” to Zimmerman. Evidently, Zimmerman has negative, predetermined associations about black people that surfaced as a result of high-arousal in a perceived dangerous situation.
Unconscious or Conscious Bias?
Although his unconscious bias created the incident by constructing his suspicion based on unwarranted associations, it seems fair to argue that Zimmerman might also be a conscious racist. He blatantly disregarded the 911 operator’s commands to pursue what he thought was a dangerous black man. He’s not even a cop. There’s no doubt that he had a conscious intention to “take care of the situation,” which played a part in the murder of an innocent teen.
So, you can imagine the surprise of his family and black families around the nation when a “not guilty” verdict was issued to Zimmerman for the murder of an innocent black teenager. This is the face of black oppression and white supremacy in America. These are the consequences of those two concepts that black families are now rising up in order to prevent.
Split-Second Decisions and Negative Associations
Policemen and women all over are forced to make split-second conclusions of danger every day. In these situations, it’s as if the policeman or woman becomes blind for a matter of seconds under intense stress: the only thing left guiding them are their unconscious biases. According to Blink, our motor skills start to break down at a heart rate above 145 (Gladwell 225). At this point, associations created by past perceptions are brought to the surface and used as tools to react to the unconscious’ perception of the amount of present danger.
Former Army Lieutenant Dave Grossman explains it well. Once our heart rate surpasses 145, he says “We begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing…The forebrain shuts down and the midbrain- the part of the brain that is the same as your dog’s- reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You might as well try to argue with your dog” (Gladwell, 225).
Negative associations are a direct effect of racial oppression and white supremacy, people; and, to those who argue that police mistreatment happens to white people too, just stop already. First of all, it doesn’t happen nearly as often. Second, a change for black people is a change for all people, as we are all humans fighting for the same opportunity to be successful and survive.
All lives do matter: Black Lives Matter members know that. What they want to do is bring awareness to the fact that ALL lives include BLACK lives. Obviously, that needs to be made clear because their race is systematically incarcerated, killed and forced into poverty year after year. This needs to change. The systematic oppression of black people in this country needs to change.
How Do We Stop Implicit Bias?
So, the question becomes, how do we stop our bodies and minds from automatically acting on faulty associations whenever we go past a heart rate of 145? How do we diminish the implicit biases built into the brains of all people, especially police, so our unconscious doesn’t force bad associations to surface in high-arousal situations? What solution will help us make more relevant observations in split-second situations?
In Blink, Gladwell explains how policemen and women can be trained to react to potential criminals in ways that don’t result in racial profiling cases. In order to overcome oppressive biases, they have to stop and give themselves more time to think, take cover, call for backup and assess the situation. They should let the suspect decide how dangerous he or she is instead of letting their unconscious decide within a split-second based on faulty associations.
In order to make this change, they must practice possible dangerous situations continuously. They must train to be able to take the time to determine relevant observations to make in high-arousal situations so they can react appropriately (Gladwell 236).
A Step In The Right Direction
The Baltimore Police Department has taken a step in the right direction. As of August 2015, the department, infamous for the arrest and death of Freddie Grain police custody last April, brought in a professional cognitive neuroscientist to help them out (Rector). His job is to train new recruits to fight against their faulty unconscious. To do this, he has been exposing police to a repetitive mental exercise intended to prevent them from making split-second decisions in high-arousal situations based on implicit biases. This training was created by Jonathan Page and has been named “Cognitive Command” training (Rector).
Proven successful in clinical trials, officers who have been trained for full Cognitive Command are better able to remain calm and remember more details in dangerous situations (Rector). The ability to remain calm allows a police officer time to process conscious thoughts in high-arousal situations instead of hastily acting on biased unconscious associations. The idea is that if we can remain calm, we can process more relevant details to perceive danger more accurately.
Belief Perseverance – Why Implicit Bias Is Tough To Beat
With practice, we might be able to use our implicit biases less, resulting in their eventual reversal. The difficulty, though, with negative associations and errors in reasoning is that we usually become reluctant to get rid of them. This is called belief perseverance: when, quite frankly, our unconscious put a lot of cognitive effort into our associations, so it doesn’t want to change them (Levitin 150-151).
According to Levitin, “People invest a significant amount of cognitive effort generating a belief that is consistent with the physiological state they are experiencing. Having done so, the results of this process are relatively persistent and resistant to change, but they do represent an insidious error of judgment” (Levitin, 150-151). Even when we are presented with evidence that we are being irrational or prejudice, we often refuse to accept it because our unconscious believes it is keeping us safe from harm to our evolutionary chances, and it worked hard on doing so.
Identify Your Biases, Listen, and Educate Yourself To Help Defeat Black Oppression
Without learning the ins and outs of the unconscious, it’s difficult to understand why so many policemen and women have been killing innocent black people on the job. Less than 60 years ago, humans were so evolutionary handicapped that they truly believed people with different colored skin should live separately.
They even believed that color made people more or less intelligent and superior. Back then, people were unable to fathom that dark-colored-folks were no different than light-colored-folks, which led to the oppression of an entire race. Is it that hard to believe that our brains are still engrained with negative associations today when all of this madness happened just 60 years ago?
Historically, evolutionary shortcuts told people to heed caution and answer differences with hate, leading to the oppression of black people and minorities that they are STILL fighting today. Incidents like Trayvon Martin in Florida and Freddie Grey are not coincidences. They are examples, warnings of what happens when we ignore our poisonous unconscious tendencies and evolutionary habits.
We must heed these warnings as not to end up right back where we started: in racial segregation. By admitting the issues and uniting to fight them, we can collectively construct policies and procedures to avoid unconscious biases and discrimination that is no longer beneficial to our society.
Note: If you’re interested in this topic and the unconscious, I recommend reading The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Both of them give ample information on the unconscious, its antics and how understanding them can make a world of difference. Gladwell has a series of extremely thought-provoking psychology books including The Tipping Point: an intricate psychological guide to creating social change, The Outlier: a lesson about our environment and its impact on how successful we turn out to be, and David and Goliath: a contrary view and analysis of the age-old story of the underdog…All super-enlightening reads!