Edward J. O'Boyle

Following years of planning and fundraising, the Smithsonian Institution in 2017 opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington. The Museum is a 501(c)(3) organization. Founding Director Lonnie Bunch stated that the purpose of the Museum is to change “the way people learn about the African American experience and the myriad ways it shapes our nation and world.”

Displayed on the Museum website is a section on talking about race in which the following question is raised: “Is implicit bias racism?” Implicit bias is the “unconscious attitudes that shape our behavior toward someone perceived as inferior or as a threatening outsider.” An article posted there addresses implicit bias in the classroom in which three rules are presented to help the teacher deal with the issue.

The first rule argues that the human brain is wired in a way that makes all of us “groupist.” The dominant culture — the in-group — in a race-conscious society creates out-groups based on race, gender, language, and sexual orientation that lead to a dehumanization of the out-groups. For the in-group, the process involves the downloading of negative social messages into the brain’s fear system.

The second rule asserts that the brain’s fear center is wired to “sniff out” implicit bias. In the classroom the teacher’s everyday snubs, slights, or insults, her microaggressions which are driven by her implicit bias, have the effect of demeaning her out-group students, and result in “death by a thousand cuts.”

The third and last rule is that the antidote to triggering the brain’s fear center is building trust and the fastest way to change implicit bias is to redefine the in-group/out-group.

By putting everyone into a group, these rules replace individualism with collectivism. Everyone is stripped of their individuality. There are no essential differences among human beings, especially those in the in-group, and for that reason everyone thinks alike.

Everyone in the in-group is machine-like whose brains have been programmed for implicit bias as if none of them have been influenced otherwise by their parents, by a minister, a mentor, a coach, another teacher, to think differently. Because they are like a machine, none of them is capable of erasing those negative social messages, of changing their minds.

The machine-like downloading of negative messages means that once in place they are retained in human brain indefinitely. No allowance is made for messages, whether positive or negative, that are not retained. Further, those who have been programmed for implicit bias are wired to act on that bias because they are incapable of censoring themselves, of not acting out their microaggressions. They suffer from group-think, a kind of automaticity and predictability in how they act.

The implicit-bias argument overlooks entirely the various “microgratuities” that teachers extend to their students such as a smile as they enter the classroom, a hug for a child who seems to be struggling, or raised eyebrow that says well-done on a homework assignment. Microgratuities, appraised by many as “little things mean a lot,” are taught and reinforced by school principals, teachers, family members and circles of friends.

Every human being is a divided-self, torn at times as to how she should act in a given situation. Positive or negative? Sympathetic or insensitive? Truthful or deceitful? Caring or heartless? Grateful or resentful? Gracious or coarse? The divided self originates in the flawed nature of every one of us. We make mistakes depending on whether we are alone or with others when we act, whether we are acting or re-acting, whether a penalty or reward is associated with acting one way or another, whether we are pressured and anxious at the moment that a decision is being made or at ease and worry-free. Any teacher appraisal system that centers on her microaggressions to the exclusion of her microgratuities is structured around the image of a teacher as a faultless self rather than a divided self.

To build trust this article recommends emphasizing affinities and similarities, a suggestion which derives from a collectivist mindset that sees human beings as social beings who need assimilation. The danger is that unrestrained assimilation can lead to a single idealized type of human being in whom all uniqueness and nonconformity are eliminated. They dissolve into one part programmable machine, one part predictable clone.

The talking-about-race section of the Museum website provides access to a video taken from PBS where it was originally telecast in March 2017. The video begins with a demonstration that the human brain works in such a way that when a person sees a jar of peanut butter she automatically pairs it with a jar of jelly. The video then shows two slices of bread, one covered with peanut butter, the other with jelly. The video then proceeds to pair the words “black men” and “violence” claiming in effect that the same kind of automatic association is present with this pairing as with peanut butter and jelly.

Just as a sandwich may be prepared with peanut butter and jelly, so too a black man may be denied a job on grounds that all black men are violent. Here the video muddies the water. It says that the black men and violence pairing is a thought that contains an implicit bias. It is not an action and is not racist because it is not explicit but it does admit that explicit racism is driven by implicit bias. It relies on the viewer forming the following simple syllogism. (All) black men are violent, all whites hold that view, therefore all whites are racists.

It’s bad enough when one person puts words in another’s mouth and then condemns that person for what she has said. It’s worse when one person puts thoughts in another’s brain and then condemns that person for what she is likely to do.

An anti-racism program probably is on the way to the school in your neighborhood. It will present arguments for changing the admissions process, curriculum, library holdings, in-service training and invited speakers, and faculty and staff annual performance evaluations. Advocates of such changes may argue that allegations of implicit bias or racism must be made anonymously to protect those who make such claims. In that case, some accommodation must be made to protect the right of the accused to cross examine the person making that charge.

Racism is a scourge. So too is condemning a person for what she may be thinking. The remedy for the one is justice and forgiveness. For the other it’s respect and civility.

Edward J. O’Boyle can be reached at (318) 381-4002 or edoboyle737@gmail.com.

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