At the outset, you should know I reject the notion of race. It’s modern manifestation is a concept we haven’t managed to get over in spite of the fact that we vanquished eugenics to the dustbin of science history around the time of World War II. For those who might not recognize the term, our eugenics movement here in the United States was an outcropping of biological determinist ideas popularized by Sir Francis Galton. Originating in the 1880s, Galton studied the upper classes of Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that their social positions were due to a superior genetic makeup. Keep in mind, at the time what we knew about “genetic makeup” was largely gleaned from a Monk named Mendel and his experimentation with peas.
That isn’t to say there aren’t people out there who cling to a biological explanation for the obvious outward differences we can all clearly see between and among our fellow humans. There are. However, they do so in the face of what science and genetics show us to be the case: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute.
Why then do we cling to it so? And, make no mistake, many many people of all sorts of ancestry (what scientists now use to delineate the many visible outward differences between and among us) cling to this notion of race for reasons they personally find very compelling. Largely when it suites their own self interest.
People who know me, know that I grew up in Berkeley California. Many people do not know that people like me, born in the late 1960s, grew up in a city where the parents and teachers had made a conscious choice to integrate the public schools. In fact, Berkeley was the first city over 100,000 in the United States to voluntarily integrate its schools. I grew up living the dream, people were to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
It came as a shock and disappointment to me to discover, upon leaving the Berkeley bubble, that people still made hay out of race (and sexuality, and any number of arbitrary distinctions). In fact, every time some has asked me to take one of these implicit bias tests, I come out slightly favoring black folks over white. Go figure.
It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized that the capacity for racism, and these other forms of judgement based on external cues, is hardwired into each of us. So, far from being an institutional problem as many of my friends like to argue, racism and other forms of bigotry are a result of education (training) or lack thereof. In fact, if you know someone who is a racist today, you know someone who has gone through life either being rewarded for these attitudes; or, more benignly, has simply not had them corrected.
Here I am going to delve into how our brains are wired to create categories for things we see and experience. Classification is the core functionality of a part of our brain, and it is paired with a “what to do about this” portion of the brain once a situation or thing has been identified. The range of response can be from do nothing all the way through fight or flight. I’m also going to borrow a concept called “over-fitting” from the world of statistics and machine learning to help make the case about how racism can arise and why it is then the responsibility of the adult supervision in this world to eradicate it.
Let’s start with a little story about one of my own children. At the time of this event, we lived in a relatively white suburban community in Massachusetts. My wife and I were taking a trip to Hilton Head South Carolina and we decided to break up the 17 hour drive with a stop in Washington D.C. We stayed at the Marriott hotel right across from The White House. Oh how our child loved that hotel. It had old fashioned elevator operators. Up and down they would take him. It had the most exquisite pool he had ever seen. Every Marriott team member he met was nice to him — it probably didn’t hurt that he was pretty talkative and cute.
In machine learning, over-fitting is a problem that arises when an algorithm makes a particular kind learning mistake — when it takes a small number of examples and assigns a unjustifiably big weight to a few features of the data. The next day we stopped at a McDonalds in North Carolina. It had one of those nifty little kids jungle gyms in the back, so we got our food and let the little one out to play with the other children.
He ran outside, and very excitedly, and to the horror of his mother and I, yelled out “Hotel people, Hotel people, can I play with you?” The only feature these children had that could link them to the Hotel we had stayed in the night before was the color of their skin. It hammered home two points to us right there and then. (1) without any training whatsoever, children attempt to classify the world around them; and, (2) as parents, we would need to be proactive in ensuring that accidental over-fitting did not go unchallenged.
The human brain is a biological computer running a learning algorithm. It is constantly subjected to the overfitting problem. Hell our brains are always trying to spot patterns that simply do not exist. When you consider these facts, you must recognizing that all forms of bigotry are just examples of over-fitting that has gone unchecked. Or, in the more nefarious situations we have seen recently, been actively encouraged.
Witness our child’s limited exposure to people who did not look like him, coupled with having experiences with a majority of African Americans in a hotel (all positive mind you). His little brain starts thinking that all black people are “hotel people”. This conclusion is clearly unjustified. The “blackness” feature has nothing to do with the “is a hotel employee or guest” feature.
As it happened we took him aside immediately and spoke to him about the fallacy of his conclusion (as best we could to an almost 3 year old). We took the time to talk with him about the proper way to seek out play interactions with others. “Hello, my name is ___, would you like to play with me.”
The solution to over-fitting is regularization. In order not to let the feature weights get out of hand, you impose a penalty on the absolute value of these weights, effectively pushing them towards zero. Racism/Bigotry can only exist in the minds of people who have insufficient counter-examples to push the weights behind their unjustified beliefs to zero.
If you meet a modern day racist, there is, for sure, another human in their lives to blame for these attitudes and beliefs. Either willful, or inadvertent, it matters not. However, now that you understand from a scientific point of view how this phenomenon arises, perhaps you can find it in your heart to seek to be a counter-weight in their lives.
At the end of the day, humanizing yourself in their eyes can only happen when you humanize them in yours.