Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bending Toward Justice?


Today we started watching 13th, the incredible documentary (based largely on The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander) about race, mass incarceration, the carceral state, and for-profit prison industry. We will spend all of February reading excerpts from The New Jim Crow using a curriculum developed by Teaching Tolerance. Our unit on The New Jim Crow fits well with our study of Reconstruction, using materials from Facing History and Ourselves. After finishing 13th on Thursday, we'll take another look at Black Codes from 1865 -- likely in a new light.

As Faulkner famously remarked, "The past is never dead, it's not even past."

One of the things I loved most about 13th (I had already read and taught The New Jim Crow in an American Studies course at Princeton, so the information was not at all new to me) was connecting with the work of Jelani Cobb, whom I now follow on Twitter.

I approach US History very much as a problem to be resolved: How do the Declaration of Independence and Constitution come to mean (or at least come closer to meaning) what they say: That all . . . are created equal. That "We the People" includes all of The People? Thus the Civil War is followed by a second American Revolution fought on those very terms: Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is a rewriting of the Constitution, and the Reconstruction Amendments (13, 14, and 15) are a Second American Revolution. But a Second Reconstruction proves necessary as well, during the 1960s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in particular.

And now today? Revanchism. Will we now bend toward justice? Or slouch toward Bethlehem? I'm not yet sure, but I believe that diversity and inclusion rests on truth and reconciliation (I stole that from a recent NYT opinion piece, which I must find and link). Reconciling ourselves to the truth is surely the work of history.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Our first blog post will address confirmation bias and implicit associations. Read the following, then take one (or more!) of the implicit association tests (IAT). 

* * * * * * from Project Implicit

What are implicit and explicit stereotypes?
Stereotypes are the belief that most members of a group have some characteristic. Some examples of stereotypes are the belief that women are nurturing or the belief that police officers like donuts. An explicit stereotype is the kind that you deliberately think about and report. An implicit stereotype is one that occurs outside of conscious awareness and control. Even if you say that men and women are equally good at math, it is possible that you associate math with men without knowing it. In this case we would say that you have an implicit math-men stereotype.

If my IAT shows that I have an implicit preference for one group over another, does that mean I am prejudiced?
Social psychologists use the word prejudice to describe people who report and approve negative attitudes toward outgroups. Most people who show an implicit preference for one group (e.g., White people) over another (e.g., Black people) are not prejudiced by this definition. The IAT shows biases that are not endorsed and that may even be contradictory to what one consciously believes. So, no, we would not say that such people are prejudiced. It is important to know, however, that implicit biases can predict behavior. When we relax our active efforts to be egalitarian, our implicit biases can lead to discriminatory behavior, so it is critical to be mindful of this possibility if we want to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

Where do implicit attitudes come from? Is it me or my culture?

Implicit preferences for majority groups (e.g., White people) are common because of strong negative associations with Black people in American society. Black people are often portrayed negatively in culture and mass media, and there is a long history of racial discrimination in the United States. However, even if our attitudes come from our culture, they are still in our own minds and can influence our behavior if we are not vigilant to not let them.

What can I do about an implicit preference that I don’t want?
It is well-established that implicit preferences can affect behavior. But, there is not yet enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated. Therefore, we encourage people not to focus on strategies for reducing bias, but to focus instead on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate. One such strategy is ensuring that implicit biases don’t leak out in the first place. To do that, you can “blind” yourself from learning a person’s gender, race, etc. when you’re making a decision about them (e.g., having their name removed from the top of a resume). If you only evaluate a person on the things that matter for a decision, then you can’t be swayed by demographic factors. Another strategy is to try to compensate for your implicit preferences. For example, if you have an implicit preference for young people you can try to be friendlier toward elderly people. Although it has not been well-studied, based on what we know about how biases form we also recommend that people consider what gets into their minds in the first place. This might mean avoiding television programs and movies that portray women and minority group members in negative or stereotypical ways.
Welcome to US History. Make yourself comfortable!