Comments on The Neuroscience of Prejudice

I accidentally got a press pass to the Science on Tap production called “You and Your Racist Brain: The Neuroscience of Prejudice” held at Portland’s Revolution Hall on October 3, 2016. Now I’d better write something. They had the lights down in the audience so I could take no notes. This is how I remember it after eleven days with travel to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and State College, PA for a sweet silver re-walk, no cake.

One of the first slides was of a Black man holding a White baby, and that baby wasn’t crying at all. The first conclusion was that we humans have no inherent preference for skin color, nose size, eye shape or any other physical attribute. We like faces that care for us.

Is that obvious? Humans, like other animals, are strange products of nature and nurture. Rabbits are famous for being instinctively afraid of a hawk’s shadow. And humans too seem to have instinctive or “non-associative” fears like that of loud noises. Personally, I feel that my discomfort at heights is instinctive, and yet how would I know? It had been commonly thought that humans instinctively fear snakes, and one could bloviate the usual evolutionary benefits. More recent studies show that fear of snakes is a learned response, and that this is also true of other primates. All of us apes effectively associate snakes with danger, and no kids need to get bit. Ooo Ooo Ooo!

The speaker explained that rather than an instinctive preference for skin color, or any other physical attribute, infants learn to see faces starting with their primary care givers. In our society children tend to first see their parents, then siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends. If these faces all share certain features, such as earlobe-attachment, eye shape, or shade, then the growing child will specialize in seeing these features. By age 4 or 5 a human child raised in a relative mono-culture will have measurably different neurological responses to faces to those they have already seen and to those with different features.

Does that make sense? Shoot, early human didn’t even have mirrors so how would an individual ever know what they looked like? What else could evolving humanoids know except what they saw? As Sartre always said, “existence precedes essence.” “The human brain is strong and flexible,” that’s what I always say.

To illustrate the results of the neurological studies, the speaker showed activity in the face-recognition area of the brain of a White guy looking at a White guy compared with that of a White guy looking at a Black guy. The White guy’s brain was lit up while looking at the White guy and just about off when looking at the Black guy. And there were affirmative um hmmm’s thorough the audience. If we assume that the White guy had been trained mostly on White faces, then this is expected within the conditioned response model of facial recognition. Indeed, the speaker mentioned that if the White guy is given a few minutes to study Black faces before being tested, then his brain lights up just fine when viewing the Black guy.

Is that surprising? Well, it reminded me of our trip to Korea last year. When we first arrived in Seoul, I was somehow surprised at the diversity of the Korean people. I guess I thought there were Koreans who kind of look like my mother-in-law and Koreans who kind of look like my father-in-law with a couple of odd uncles-in-law thrown in. Well, there is a lot more variety than that. More to the point is that after a week of traveling around and seeing more and more phenotypes, I lost the sense of Korean-ness altogether. I remember seeing a pedestrian from the bus who looked just like Peter Loben, my childhood neighbor and the only White guy on our high school basketball team. A second later, I couldn’t remember if Peter’s doppel-ganger was Korean or a Westerner or What. There was just something Peter-Lobenish about them.

The next few slides were about how the brain processes visual information. Like I said, I couldn’t take notes because it was so dark in there. It went something like: When a photon hits the eyeball the resulting signal from the optic nerve bounces off the back of the brain and splits into two signals, one for each hemisphere. One of the signals is used for movement and the other for recognizing static objects. There are known brain injury cases where the person could only see a series of static images. The upshot was that healthy humans are very good and fast at responding to visual cues like a 70 mile-per-hour ping pong ball or a human face. The speaker called this the “automatic response” in that it occurs before higher level frontal-lobe stuff kicks in.

Is that somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow?” Maybe this would be more like “Thinking Very Fast.” In any case, I sure try to turn off the conscious-linguistic part of my brain when playing ping pong. And it makes some sense to call my counter-attack “automatic.” However, as there is likely no ping pong gene, it is only “automatic” in the context of thousands of hours of training. With facial recognition, the training is measured in millions of hours. Because of this, I find the use of the term “automatic response” confusing. The scientific evidence presented showed two things: that humans instinctively respond quickly to faces, and that the response is wholly conditioned. It is only the quickness that can be called “automatic.” The particular neural response, whether positive, negative or indifferent, is a simple reflection of conditioning. I would call that a “fast conditioned response” way before I called it an “automatic response.”

To demonstrate how quickly our brains recognize facial features, the speaker flashed millisecond images of human faces. Most audience members seemed to recognize a Black man with a white beard in the first slide. Somewhat fewer seemed to understand the young Asian woman in the next. In any case, the speaker concluded that we can never be color blind like we thought we were supposed to be in the 60’s, and that we evolved to be so adept and quick at facial recognition, that we will always see the color of the other.

What do we think of that? Well, the press is no use unless it is critical.

“You and Your Racist Brain: The Neuroscience of Prejudice” is worth seeing on two levels: It presents neurological evidence that humans are not at all racist and at the same time demonstrates how difficult it is to escape our racial environment. Is the image of a Black man holding a White baby racist? I don’t know. I’d say that it made a certain impression because of our racial environment.

What about the image of a blank-brained White guy looking at a Black guy? I’d call that one racist. Science shows that recognition of faces has no causal relationship with the skin color of the viewer. I’d call it racist, because the image both does not communicate the science and does play into racial stereotypes.

Our shared racial environment is seen in the language of the speaker and how that language is heard. The speaker called the rapid interpretation of facial features an “automatic response.” When the White guy’s brain didn’t fire for the Black guy, this was because of a lack of “automatic response.” There were affirmative um hmmm’s throughout the audience at this. The problem here is that the “automatic” part only refers to the quickness and not the quality of the response. A few quotes from the advertisement for the talk illustrate how easily this is perverted: “…automatic prejudice that contributes to racism in our society…” and “… preconceived opinions about other people are not based on reason or experience but on instinct.” These statements are both at odds with the science presented and at evens with the prevailing racial winds.

How racially trained our brains are is further revealed in the millisecond images flashed on the screen. I question the conclusion that we can never be color blind like we thought we were supposed to be in the 60’s. There was certainly no scientific evidence presented for this hypothesis. The scientist in the speaker knew this and tried to finesse the proof by using the audience as test subjects. Indeed, we quickly ID-ed a Black man with a white beard. This, however, does not pass the science sniff test. We, the test subjects, were raised in racial times and are neurologically trained to ID a Black man with a white beard. This training disqualifies us as test subjects to project onto tomorrow’s or yesterday’s humans. It seems more likely that such flash-image experiments reveal whatever attributes society tells us are important, whether nose length, forehead angle, eye shape or any of uncountably many other attributes. In other words, the speaker’s flash image demonstration is a snapshot of our collective conditioning. It may be possible to teach a dog to respond to another dog’s color, and this seems like the last thing on the average dog’s mind.

The main scientific conclusion of the presentation is that human facial recognition is consistent with a blank-slate theory: Infants have no instinctual preferences for facial types; rather, we humans simply learn to recognize whatever facial features we see. This is reinforced by the second conclusion: Even White adults trained for decades on a relative mono-culture of faces can learn to see different faces in a matter of a few minutes. This simple and encouraging message was obscured by the sum of our racially-conscious histories. The image of a blank-brained White man looking at a Black man got affirmative ‘um hmmm’s from the audience and yet hid the interesting science. Finally, the use of the term “automatic response” is too easily misconstrued to “automatic prejudice,” which is wholly unscientific.

Eastside democratic Club Minutes for October 4, 2016

12:12 David welcomes everyone and reminds them that membership is only $5 per year and then you get to vote. David offered the group free lawn signs for the county-wide campaign finance reform measure 97. Due to time constraints that was the only announcement. There were 49 people in attendance.

Tom moved to amend the agenda with no seconds.

12:14 David introduced Chloe Eudaly who is running for City Council against the incumbent Steve Novick.

Ms Eudaly told us how to pronounce her name and that she is a life-long resident of Portland. The owns a runs a misssion-driven bookstore and is a Mom of a child with disabilities. She is an advocate for inclusion. In the last four of years her rent went up 60% and she struggles with housing costs and student loans. She can’t afford vacations. There are ripple effects to the financial squeeze: poor people don’t spend money. Another effect is that our city emergency workers are understaffed: everyone is moving to Clackamas where they can afford to live. Because of all the ripple effects and personal experience, housing is her top issue.

Ms Eudaly reminds us that she would be only the 8th women on City Council in 100 years. She said that Mr Novick is claiming that there is no real difference between them and points out several including: campaign finance reform, superfund cleanup, he supports Terminal 1 as a housing solution, and he supports the in-through-Wiener’s-backdoor Uber.

The first question was about the Police Contract and she said that it was one-sided with no gain for citizens and that there are deeply ingrained problems with Portland Police.

Next question was: Did she pay workers less than minimum? Her bookstore does a lot of not-for-profit work and there are some volunteers. She pays her worker-workers 20% over minimum.

Next: Isn’t is hypocritical to support $15 Now and pay you own workers less than $15/hr? No, she is a micro business and supports a tier-wise implementation starting with the larges firms. By the time is gets around to small businesses they will then be able to afford it.

Next on the agenda was Justin. He told us that zoom care wants to be on every corner in Seattle and Portland. The problem is that they operate on a system of exclusivity, only catering to health young and well-off folks. They do not even accept medicare. Justin is organizing a series of protests outside of Zoom offices with the hopes of bringing them to the table and the next one in October 18th at 2pm on NW 23rd.

There was a motion to endorse his campaign and this easily passed with only a few nos and abstentions.

Jim Hill was the next speaker. Mr Hill served in the Oregon House and Senate and became the first person of color to hold state-wide office when he became treasurer. Now he is a write and spoke about his book: ‘The new N word’. He started with a brief biography.

I’m 69 and grew up under racial segregation. We were second class citizens by law. I served 10 years in the legislator and then 2 terms as treasurer. I ran for governor twice and was then done with politics. When the economic crisis hit in 2008 I realized that we were a plutocracy. Discrimination is different than it was in the south growing up – now it is class based. Whites are getting poorer and poorer and are seen by corporate powers as merely cheap labor. It breaks my heart to see poor whites being treated as we were.

Mr Hill then read some from his book, emphasizing the (underused) power of the vote. He especially admonished women, who make up half the population, to vote for their interests. He finished by suggesting that we don’t vote for any candidate that takes big money. He has been there ‘dialing for dollars’ and can testify that decisions are make through the prism of campaign cash.

Audience question: What has changed since you were Treasurer?
Mr Hill: The rise of corporate power. Banks are now openly elitist.

Q: Wheeler took money from mega-polluter Bulls Eye Glass: does that disqualify him?
A: I don’t know the details of that and political decisions are make through the prism of money.

Q: (From a white women) Does the title of your book diminish Black people?
A: I lived it and Mama worse and her Mama even worse. We are now all in the boat together.

Q: If you were Treasurer now, would you divest from fossil fuel?
A: We did pass an anti-apartheid bill then and, yes, I would divest from fossil fuel now.

The final act of show was pro and con on Portland’s housing bond. This is a $250M deal to provide some low cost housing. The Yes Campaign send Ryan ___ and the No side was represented by Micheal Withey of Micro Community Concepts. (I moderated and so didn’t take notes). There was no disagreement and to the need of more affordable housing in Portland. The Yes side emphasized this and the con side emphasized the high cost per unit and general untrustworthiness and developer-first mentality of this Portland City Council.