Monday, September 16, 2019

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Article Index

B. Understanding Racism (through Neuroscience)

I recall an incident years ago when a white man that I worked with told me he was racist. He said he believed he was inherently better than I was because he was white and I was black. Most people do not go around admitting to others, or even to themselves, that they are racist. But racism's existence is sustained by people who are racist and/or who have racial bias. Racism is also perpetuated by institutions including legal systems that deny people equal protection under the law because they are deemed racially inferior. For example, scholars have identified “shooter bias” where people associate a criminal act such as robbery with black men, the prolific reality of racial profiling in police stops, and incidents of racial bias by judges and other legal decision makers. These studies add veracity to the many human rights claims documenting people's experiences with racism around the world.

But defining racism and documenting its existence is not enough. We also need to better understand why it occurs in order to combat it. This is where neuroscience offers invaluable insights to the discourse. Neuroscience, broadly speaking, is the study of the brain, its organization, and its functions. Neuroscientists study how the brain and the nervous system work and the relationship between brain activity and our behavior. Neuroscience provides evidence about brain activity involved in choices, risk-taking, and other cognitive functions at the neural level. When you make a choice or take an action, there is neurobiological activity in your brain associated with doing so. When we meet a stranger, for example, we immediately decide whether or not we think that person is a threat or not. In making such a choice, our brains may invoke past experiences, memories, emotion, and more. Some aspects of memory, perception, knowledge, and emotion can be implicit, meaning that their influence on our behavior occurs at the unconscious level of which we are not aware. Thus, our choices and actions are influenced by these “[h]idden internal events.” Aspects of our higher cognition include the mental activity we engage in when we formulate decisions, assess information, and make judgements. Various regions of our brain, and the neural circuitry that connects them, engage each other when we make a choice or change our mind. Generally speaking, this is the reason why our biases can influence our cognition at the neural level. Understanding human choice at this level helps us to acknowledge the full array of influences that shape such choice.

This is where bias involving preference for or aversions to a person because of her race (and other identity factors) becomes relevant. We can be aware of such preferences (explicit bias) or completely unaware (implicit bias). Here, an area of our brain associated with fear and other emotions, the amygdala, has particular relevance. Studies on racial bias evidence neural activity in the amygdala. For example, a 2014 review of neuroimaging studies investigating the “neural correlates of prejudice” suggests, once again, that the amygdala is of high importance. The study goes further to argue that activity in this area of the brain may be attributed to a person perceiving a threat that arises from negative cultural associations with black men and other groups.

One early, yet important, implication of this work is the significance of neural activity associated with in-group and out-group behavior. Here, race, sex, gender, age, and more all become factors in how we perceive and evaluate a person. Where a person's identity is of an out-group to our own and one that has historically or culturally been associated with negative traits, we process such perceptions and biases in our amygdala, which is where we also process fear. Such insights into the neural mechanisms responsible for racial bias demonstrate that it is linked to fear. There are caveats and conditions to these findings and future evidence will help refine or extend earlier work, but neuroscience proves an essential tool to understanding and addressing racial bias.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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