Monday, April 07, 2008
I found this site at the University of Chicago, and thought it raised some interesting issues, not the least of which is how guilt-driven thinking can obscure the obvious. The researchers are attempting to ascertain racial bias by measuring reaction times to armed and unarmed white and black men. Those being tested are asked to either shoot in defense or holster their weapon, whichever is warranted.
The study makes certain assumptions that I question out of the gate. The first is that we should naturally respond to depictions of armed black men and white men exactly the same, or something is wrong. Now if black men and white men committed lethal violence at the same rate, I would expect this. Of course we know that black men commit lethal crimes at 5-6 times the rate of white men, so I would expect reaction times to armed black men to be lower – which they are.
The second, and greater, assumption is about stereotypes themselves, and that they are automatically misleading and should be avoided. In reality, the stereotype at play here, black men as more dangerous, is accurate and the heightened sensitivity this brings is only natural, and would, on average, aid those who might otherwise add themselves to the wrong end of the homicide statistics.
It is guilt-driven thinking that automatically labels all stereotypes as bad, even though such labeling has never stopped anyone, white or black, from continuing to employ them as, sometimes life-saving, shortcuts in support of an increasingly complex world. To survive, every stereotype must contain a ‘kernel of truth’. Without empirical backing they wither onto the scrapheap of selfish bigotry.
As for my test, my split between armed men, black and white, showed that I hesitated more, as did most, on counter-stereotyped targets. In other words, I shot armed black males 15 milliseconds faster than armed white males. My reaction time to unarmed subjects was 2 milliseconds longer for blacks.
I can forgive the crudeness of the on-line test, the actual research efforts (paper) looks to be significantly more robust. The NYT took its own cut as well. However, avoiding the taboos in the assumptions is a fatal flaw.
James C. Collier
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