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Racism goes far beyond skin color

Published Thursday, December 20, 2001

Racism goes far beyond skin color

For my money, it's one of the more depressing things people do.

When they talk about racism, this practice of demeaning and denying based on the darkness of skin, people shrug. Sometimes in words, sometimes in the actual gesture. Either way, it bespeaks a presumption that racism is inevitable, comes programmed into the human psyche. That, regrettable as it may be, we are naturally inclined to judge people based on race.

But maybe we are not.

That's the quietly revolutionary implication of a new study from The University of California at Santa Barbara, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can find information on the study and a link to it online at

Here's how it worked: Test subjects were shown images on a computer screen of two racially integrated basketball teams whose members had ostensibly been involved in an altercation. Each picture was accompanied by statements from the team members -- two black, two white on each team -- talking about the supposed confrontation. Later, test subjects were given the pictures and the statements and told to match the speakers with their words from memory.

Researchers expected their subjects to make mistakes; in fact, they were counting on it. As one of the researchers, Leda Cosmides, puts it, ''Mistakes reveal encoding: People more readily confuse individuals whom they have encoded as members of the same category than those whom they have categorized as members of different categories.''

Indeed, when test subjects were shown pictures of black and white players wearing similar jerseys, they tended to mix them up by race -- to assign one black player's words to another, even though they might have been on different teams. However, when players wore distinctive jerseys -- when their team affiliations were visibly emphasized, in other words -- the mix-ups tended to be among teammates. Players on the same squad were mistakenly assigned one another's words without regard to skin color.

As Cosmides points out, scientists have long known that division leads inevitably to discrimination. ''If you divide people into two groups along any dimension -- it can be a completely silly dimension -- they will start favoring the in-group and discriminating against the out-group.'' So if it turned out that people are hard-wired to see those of different races as ''the other,'' as part of the opposing team, it would suggest that ending racism is all but impossible.

The Santa Barbara study indicates just the opposite. And it's worth remembering that, for all the mighty machinery that maintains it, for all the horrific crimes that have been committed in its name, racism is, at its heart, just a shortcut taken by a lazy mind. Just a way of claiming to know another person without the bother of ever actually meeting him or her. It's an emotional sand castle, an intellectual card house, a false construct upon which we've piled century after century of lies, assumptions and preconceptions. And the results are tellingly absurd.

Consider two hypothetical men, both black, but one a millionaire businessman with a degree from Howard and a penthouse in New York, the other a barely literate street kid raised on some hellish corner in the inner city. That most of us would look past their differences and assume a connection between them based on their single commonality speaks volumes about the way race can eclipse every other factor of a person's existence. And the fact that those men would at the very least pay lip service to the idea that they were brothers also speaks volumes. About the fact that money and education are no barrier to feeling put upon by dint of race.

I hesitate to read too much into a single study, but the paper Cosmides and her colleagues have published is intriguing. You have to give it that much. First, because it serves as a reminder that skin color doesn't always tell you what team a person plays for. And second, because it suggests that, for all our excuse-making to the contrary, there's nothing inevitable about racism. Rather, racism is learned behavior.

And that's very good news. Because if you can learn how to do a thing, it stands to reason you can also learn how to stop.

Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column runs in Living & Arts every Thursday and Saturday. Call him toll-free at 888-251-4407.

© 2002 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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