Sunday, April 6, 2008


Yoiks! Nicholas Kristof is a racist. At least if racism can be measured by the millisecond. The Times columnist participated in a little computer game constructed by University of Chicago psychologist Joshua Correll. It's the sort of game that my nine-year old would really enjoy. 120 photographs of ordinary landscapes (a street, a shopping mall, a cemetery, a grassy knoll, etc.) appear in rapid succession. Superimposed on the otherwise nonthreatening scenery is a young black or white man, one per picture. Some are armed with handguns, others holding cellphones or wallets. You have a choice, fire or not. Kristof was a quick trigger. He shot armed blacks in .679 seconds; armed whites in .694 seconds. The gap between the two: 0.15 seconds. In those 0.15 seconds, Kristof has found irrefutable proof of his racism.

I took the test. For those who are counting, my score was -2010 (In other words, I reacted slowly and was killed several times).

My Average reaction times:
Black Armed:1434.08ms
Black Unarmed:1477.44ms
White Armed:1292.48ms
White Unarmed:1056.16ms

Well one thing is for sure. I'm not about to challenge Kristof to a duel. I'm slow to the trigger. Second, I reacted more slowly to blacks than whites. Perhaps I'm a "reverse racist." Or maybe I spend too much time with Quakers and other non-violent types. Or maybe I thought too much rather than letting my reptile brain take over.

So what is racism? And does this test really teach us anything?

Racism is the use of phenotypical classifications to allocate power and resources in society. Rather than measure racism by asking people to play silly little computer games, a few hard statistics will suffice. Where do you live? What color are your neighbors? Do blacks on average attend better schools, live in safer neighborhoods, and have greater economic status than whites? I'll post some answers later, but what I can say is that my statistics are a lot grimmer than Kristof's fifteen millisecond racial gap. Racism is not the blink of an eye. There are better metrics.

Studies of neuroracism are not just measuring the wrong thing, they are sending the wrong message. Kristof offers the disclaimer that "biases are not immutable." But the implication of neurological studies is precisely the opposite. Racism is hard-wired in the brain. That's ultimately a politically disabling finding.

Racism IS a serious problem. It IS deeply entrenched in American life. But as the last eighty years of civil rights history teaches us, what gains blacks have made are the result of activism, legislation, and litigation. The causes of racial inequality--and the solutions--are political and economic not neurological.