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22 September 2015

The "Other-race Effect" Is Racism by Another Name

I caught this article in the NYTimes a couple days ago. Here is an excerpt (emphasis added):
The outcry was immediate and ferocious when a white New York City police officer tackled James Blake, the retired biracial tennis star, while arresting him this month in a case of mistaken identity.... 
Racism, pure and simple, some said.
But was it?
Scientists...call it the “other-race effect,” a cognitive phenomenon that makes it harder for people of one race to readily recognize or identify individuals of another.
Psychologists say that starting when they are infants and young children, people become attuned to the key facial features and characteristics of the those around them. Whites often become accustomed to focusing on differences in hair color and eye color. African-Americans grow more familiar with subtle shadings of skin color.
The gist of the article is that this isn't racism; it's some kind of innate psychological effect and, thus, should be excused or at least forgiven, but what belies this is the psychological research itself, and I think this points to an important sociological fact.

Classical instances of racism are increasingly rare. The Civil Rights Movement has been quite successful in convincing the overwhelming majority that overt bigotry is morally wrong (or at least that it comes with social sanctions that are best avoided). What sociology has shown over and over again is that racist outcomes persist even without obvious examples of racist intent. Instead, subtle social psychological and social structural phenomena perpetuate unequal treatment and outcomes. The "other-race effect" is exactly the form that racism increasingly takes today, a racism that persist as an unconscious--and hence unchallenged--matter.

Moreover, the "other-race effect" is itself the product of those very subtle social forces that make it so that infants and young children are surrounded by a "those around them" who are disproportionately of their own racial/ethnic group. There is nothing natural or inevitable about being surrounded by a non-diverse set of people.

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