Psychology studies continually reinforce the notion that humans will form groups in ways they are not consciously aware of, and with very little (minimal) external prompting.



The Parable of the Minimal Groups

Psychology studies continually reinforce the notion that humans will form groups in ways they are not consciously aware of, and with very little (minimal) external prompting. For instance, in a famous study, participants are brought into a room and given some small task to perform. When they enter the room each participant is given a pen, either a red pen or a blue pen. After filling out some questionnaires, the participants are done. It’s common in psychology experiments like this one to pay participants. But in this experiment a surprising thing happens. When one person is given a bundle of cash and told to distribute the money to the other participants, that person does not always distribute the money equally. Instead, it is common that the distributor will give out more money to those with the same color pen as he or she has. If she was given a blue pen, she’ll give more money to people with blue pens. If she was given a red pen, she’ll give more money to people with red pens. This is called a minimal grouping: we form groups, in ways that have real consequences, based on very, very thin information. Why do we do this? It seems that humans are instinctively quite adept at parsing the world into recognizable and manageable parcels of information. When there is no obviously meaningful way to distinguish among random strangers, we will begin distinguishing people based on arbitrary characteristics. Of course, we all know what can happen (what does happen) when we divide the world into arbitrary groups, assigning more worth to some than others: racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination. The problem of discrimination is precisely this: the confusion of an arbitrary difference with a meaningful one. We know that dividing the world into in-groups and out-groups is hard to avoid, but we know the consequences are profound. So, how do we keep ourselves from doing it?

What is Race?

Race is a fiction, the grouping of individuals by perceived physical characteristics, or phenotypes. We often imagine that race is inherited by a biological or blood-borne factor, but physical groupings of individuals are chosen, and are not inevitable. What we call “race” is socially constructed. The lines between groups are not distinct, are not biologically meaningful, are not universally recognized, and are instead the product of historical, economic, and cultural preferences (and, indeed, of historical, economic, and cultural mistakes). In other words, racial groupings are arbitrary groupings.

Having said all that, race remains socially powerful. We continue to define ourselves and our neighbors by race, and we often acknowledge that our “race” is an important part of our identity. Race may indeed be (and indeed is) a social construction, but it is small consolation to victims of prejudice to be told that race is just a fiction.


Effects of Prejudice

Prejudice is alive and well in a whole host of ways in our lives today – as I know you are all well aware. I hope you are also aware of the distinction between implicit and explicit prejudice. Explicit prejudice occurs as a conscious act, while implicit prejudice is generally unconscious. Implicit prejudice occurs either because people are unaware of their own biases, or because institutions – like governments, schools, or workplaces – have codified practices that perpetuate inequality, even when no one individual is aware of the problem.  I will give you just one brief example of an institutional practice responsible for perpetuating bias (though I expect a lot of you are aware of others). When you started classes at this school, most of you took the Accuplacer Test, a fairly innocuous standardized exam that places you into your writing and mathematics courses. You may remember that before you began answering the exam questions, you were asked to fill out demographic information: questions about your gender, race, and so on. There are lots of good reasons for schools like North Hennepin to ask students demographic questions. In particular, the school wants to know who is taking classes, and who is succeeding. If we have more women graduating than men, or more white faces graduating than dark faces, that is an inequality which the school will want to correct. And as an aside, Minnesota high schools have one of the most pronounced “opportunity gaps” in the nation. This means that the gap between the number of white kids graduating and the number of black kids graduating (or of native kids or Latino kids graduating, etc.) is quite pronounced. And that signals a problem. We do not want “race” to be a predictor of high school graduation rates. Nevertheless, in Minnesota, it is.

But back to the Accuplacer Test. The problem is not with the test per se, the weirdness arises from asking the demographic questions before students take the exam. What effect do you think that has on the test results? Black kids do worse than they otherwise would, and white kids do better than they otherwise would (and, to be clear, these trends are generalizations – it doesn’t necessarily mean that you experienced this effect). Why does this happen? It happens because when students are asked to reveal details about their race, gender, etc., they are rendered both invisible and hypervisible. Invisible because they feel they are not seen for who they really are, but instead as an anonymous member of a stereotyped group, and hypervisible because they feel they’ve been seen, or are being watched. As a result, the increased anxiety sabotages student performance.

The point of bringing this up is not to focus on the Accuplacer Test in particular, but to note it as but one example in which our unconscious expectations about race and identity deeply affect how we think, how we act, and how we regard and treat others. In other words, when surrounded by institutional racism, we begin to think differently, even about ourselves.

Another aside: the greatest predictor of whether you will graduate from North Hennepin is not race, though it overlaps with race, gender, and other “group” information. The greatest predictor of whether you will graduate is simply whether you identify with the people at the school. If you feel that there are people at the school who identify with you, recognize you, and understand you, you’re much more likely to stay invested in school. On the other hand, if you feel that at school no one is really like you, or if you feel that you have to change who you are in order to succeed in school, you’ll lose motivation. So, make sure you find people at school, whether teachers, staff, or students, who you identify with and who understand you.  Now that classes are entirely online, this will be harder to do, but try to make that connection - your success may hinge on it!

What are we to do?

An astonishing set of recent experiments shed light on prejudice – in rats. Rats, it turns out, have an acute sense of empathy. In an experiment, when rats are given a choice between having a piece of chocolate (a treat they really like) or saving a friend who is drowning, rats will regularly skip the chocolate in order to save the drowning friend (as an aside, rats will save their fellows even more reliably than humans will. I myself have literally seen humans refuse to save a fellow drowning human). Now, the experimental condition just described can be altered in interesting ways. When a white rat who has been raised with other white rats sees a black rat drowning, what will she do? She’ll choose to eat the chocolate instead of saving the drowning rat. She doesn’t recognize the drowning friend. However, when a white rat is raised with both white and black rats, and is faced with saving a black rat, what will she do? She’ll save her friend, of course, because she recognizes her. Now for the really interesting condition: when a white rat is raised with only black rats, and is asked to save a white rat, what will she do? She’ll eat the chocolate! In other words, the rat does not recognize a rat that looks like herself.

Well, what does this tell us about discrimination? It tells that who we identify with is malleable. It may be inevitable that we divide information into categories, but it is not inevitable that we divide people along arbitrary lines. Rats will save rats who they identify as part of their in-group, so, obviously, we need to learn to recognize one another as members of the same group, with the same basic humanity (just as the rats can learn to recognize a basic rodentity!). How do we do this? Actually, it’s really really easy. Through mere exposure people will come to recognize one’s another’s shared interests and shared humanity. Mere exposure just means exposing people to one another, just as in a class, with a lot of people from all kinds of different backgrounds. Once people spend some time with one another, they’re much more likely to skip the chocolate and save one another when drowning. Or, to put it more precisely, you’re much more likely to skip the chocolate and save a person who looks like one of your classmates![1] Now, mere exposure doesn’t always work; it works under one particular circumstance. Mere exposure works when people meet in equality. A classroom is the perfect example: you’re all equal in the classroom, all subject to the same conditions, all suffering through my lectures. Under such conditions, you’ll broaden the scope of who you have empathy for. But notice that when people meet in inequality, the opposite happens. Imagine a town with two distinct populations, one a minority, one a majority, one with power, and one without power. Will these people come to have empathy with each other? No, just the opposite. Even though they often see each other, they’ll come to see each group as even more distinct, and will come to judge one another with disdain – and a look at south Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, reinforces the truth of this effect. Power differential matters! So, mere exposure will broaden people’s empathy, but only exposure under conditions of equality.

[1] Do see how this all ties back to Plato’s Myth of Gyges…?

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