Wednesday, September 30, 2020

All of us are racists in our early infancy.

Listening to a Sam Harris 'Making Sense' podcast interview of prolific black author John McWhorter - who describes 'The New Religion of Anti-Racism' - puts me in awe of how advanced and detailed arguments over race have become, with many brilliant people writing. This gives me pause with respect to adding any comments of my own to the cacophony. much of the writing - on critical race theory for example - there seems to be almost exclusive emphasis on social constructionist approaches. Culture, history, politics are the main determinants. To point out that our social brains are genetically predisposed during their development to make us infant racists, performing us versus them distinctions even before one year of age, is to risk being labeled as racist, or some other flavor of politically incorrect. 

So... just to make the point again... humans are born, and their brains are wired, with a predisposition to form 'us and them' distinctions, particularly with regard to facial characteristics or skin color, that on average distinguish different ethnic or racial groups. If you enter 'faces', 'race', or 'infants' in the search box in the left column on this page, you will find hundreds of relevant posts noting research from 2006 onward. As a small sample: 

-An 'other race effect' emerges by 6 months of age, fully present at 9 months, in which infants discriminate faces within their own racial group better than within three other-race groups (African, Middle Eastern, and Chinese). 

- Orphan human infants raised with exposure to only same-race faces (European or Asian) have heightened amygdala fear responses to out-group faces than those raised with exposure to same- and other-race faces. Later age of adoption is associated with greater biases to race. 

-In group favoritism and expectations are observed in 17 month old infants. 

-The facial recognition area of our brains immediately collects information about race and sex as well, showing patterns of activation that are different for black and white faces, and for female and male faces. Meaning is attached to those identifications later in visual processing.

-Deindividuation of outgroup faces occurs at the earliest stages of visual perception.

-Pervasive stereotypes linking Black men with violence and criminality lead to implicit cognitive biases, including the misidentification of harmless objects as weapons.

-Studies on people of varying race, religion, and age and find, that after ranking their own race, religion, or age most favorably, people rank remaining categories in the same hierarchy, suggesting that rules of social evaluation are pervasively embedded in culture and mind.

We need to be clear that the nudging to be little racists by our genes and culture during infancy does not imply that this is what we should be (the naturalistic fallacy). It does give us a more clear understanding of how the biological deck is stacked against us as we try to modify our adult behaviors, which can never be as hard-wired as those learned much earlier. 

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