What Can Science Teach Us About Racism and Ferguson?

In the wake of the grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, I have heard a number of people say that this is not about racism. “Consider only the facts,” they say. “People are letting their emotions get the best of them.” “They are going hysterical and calling this racist when it isn’t.”

You can easily peruse the facts of the Brown-Wilson case specifically (the transcript is right here). Removing hot emotions and lived experience, what if we use cool data to look at this case and others?

What if we use humanity’s highest form of fact- and logic-based thinking…..science? Experimentation? Controlled variables in a laboratory setting?

Let’s take a look.

To start, if you’re wondering about my qualifications, I have a degree in social psychology from one of the top 20 schools in the country. For several semesters, I ran lab experiments for a PhD student who is now a psychology professor at another top 20 school nationwide. So I promise, I didn’t just read a few Malcom Gladwell books and call myself an expert.

First off– how the hell do you measure racism in a lab setting, anyways? You can’t just ask research subjects, “Hey, do you hate black people?” Most people will answer no– not just because most people aren’t KKK members, but also because of social desirability. That is, they know they’ll look better if they withhold or underplay racist beliefs that they might have. So scientists developed what’s called the implicit association test (IAT). The IAT primes a subject by first flashing a prime– a word or image displayed for milliseconds, which registers subconsciously but not consciously– then showing another word or image. The subject must categorize that second word or image as instructed by the experimenter. The variable is response time– if she was primed with a first stimulus that she associates with that category, then she selects the category faster. So, let’s say that someone was being shown a smiley face and a frowny face, and asked to click on the smiley face each time it comes up. If the subject is primed with flower on the screen for just an instant before the faces appear, she will click on the smiley face more quickly than if she is primed with insect. (Unless she happens to be an entomology major, I suppose.)

So Drs. Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, and Williams studied this in race. Subjects were shown adjectives such as wonderful, disgusting, and attractive and asked to press a key to indicate if it was good or bad. Before each word, they were subliminally primed with photographs of Caucasian and African American faces. When primed with African American faces, white subjects were quicker to categorize bad adjectives– because they have negative associations with black and brown faces. Moreover, their scores on the implicit association test didn’t correlate precisely with explicit written questionnaires (the Modern Racism Scale).

This indicates that white people who do not identify as disliking African Americans can still harbor negative attitudes towards them. Full text of the study can be found here.

Yes, you say, but there is a difference between negative attitudes and being a police officer who has to quickly assess and act on a threat. Dr. B. Keith Payne wondered if implicit attitudes could affect decisions that police officers make– namely, does that guy have a gun? In the lab, Payne had subjects categorize an image as either a gun or a simple hand tool. Before each image, they were primed with either an African American face or a white face.

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That’s the image included in the research article, published here. Subjects showed a greater weapon bias when primed with African American faces– that is, they were quicker to pick a gun, and more likely to erroneously mistake a hand tool for a gun.

So, we have established experimental evidence that people’s decisions can be influenced by race without their explicit knowledge, and that these decisions can have to life-or-death consequences. (Payne cites Amadou Diallo, whom police shot to death because they thought he had a gun– in reality, he was pulling out a wallet to show ID.)

Is this justified? African Americans are disproportionately more likely to commit a crime, right? Doesn’t that make it their issue, their fault? Caucasians are just using facts here. African Americans need to shape up and improve themselves.

Does science say that it is merely an issue of character flaw, though? Take a look at some data.

The National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan shows that poverty disproportionately affects Hispanics and African Americans— 26.6% and 27.4% respectively were poor, compared to 12.1% of Asians and 9.9% of Caucasians. We also know that people of low socioeconomic status experience greater levels of stress, as objectively measured by cortisol (one of the fight-or-flight hormones). There is lots of work on cortisol and child poverty, but here is a study in adults by Sheldon Cohen et al.

If you have taken any introductory psych course, you may recall the name Roy Baumeister. He is the rock star of self-regulation, and did some enormously influential experiments that show that willpower is much like a muscle. If self-control is used, eventually that “muscle” gets tired and it becomes hard to control yourself until you can rest. (So, if you have been biting your tongue to keep from lashing out at your cranky boss all day, don’t expect to have an easy time of coming home and forcing yourself to exercise instead of pigging out on chips and salsa on the couch.) In Baumeister’s extensive review of the literature, he says, “When stress or fatigue depletes an individual’s strength, self-regulatory failures become more likely.”

Now let us return to the lab. Dr. C. Nathan DeWall, in conjunction with Baumeister and others, did a clever set of experiments to look at the relation between self-regulation and aggression. Subjects entered the lab, presumably for an experiment on “food preferences and written expression.” The subject and a partner, hidden in another room, first wrote essays. Then the subject either received a donut or a radish for taste testing– until the experimenter burst out that the subject got the wrong food, and to please hold on for a few minutes while she fetched the right food item. That is the experimental vs. control setup. Afterwards, the subject gets his or her essay back, graded by the “partner” (actually, a confederate of the experiment) with negative commentary scribbled all over it (including, bitingly, “this is one of the worst essays I have ever read”). Subjects then had to prepare a taste test for their partner. In a food preference questionnaire, the partner (falsely, of course) rated a strong dislike of spicy foods. Subjects were advised to give their partners three potato chips and “adequate sauce.” Guess who dumped hot sauce all over their one-alarm, Tabasco-hating partner’s chips? Yes, the participants who resisted eating the donut– the ones who exerted their self-regulation muscles. Their hot sauce alacrity had nothing to do with feelings of anger towards the partner, as post-test questionnaires showed. It was a result of ego depletion (that is, wiping out their self-regulation).

What to conclude from this? Poverty leads to stress and problems with self-regulation, which leads to increased aggression.

People of all races are poor, but African Americans are far more likely to be poor than Caucasians.

Caucasians may say “this was not influenced by race,” but race can influence us in subtle, harmful ways.

During grand jury deliberations, a 12-year-old black boy was shot to death for carrying a BB gun, which a 911 caller repeatedly told dispatchers was probably not real.

A week before, a black father named Akai Gurley was shot and killed by a rookie police officer in the Brooklyn housing project where he lived. Mr. Gurley was taking the stairs, dark without bulb replacements for months, because the elevator was broken. He was unarmed and innocent.

When you don’t know who to believe, believe the science.


Why You Should Give a Damn About Diabetes Awareness Month, Part 2

Last week I talked about the global scale of diabetes problems.

Now, let us turn our attention to…..the individual scale of my diabetes bullshit!

A couple months ago, I heard about a project that Kerri started called Walk With D. Raising awareness about everyday life for some of us with Type 1 diabetes, we post to social media using #walkwithD and it all gets collected somewhere…I think?

So I took a day and tweeted everything in my life on that average, typical day that had to do with diabetes. An average, typical day that includes the brainpower of roughly 47 D-related decisions and actions to be made.

For me, it is far from the worst thing in the world. Still a real pain in the ass (sometimes literally) and worthy of a cure.

AWARE-IFY THYSELF by clicking on the complete day, via Storify.

Why You Should Give a Damn About Diabetes Awareness Month, Pt 1

Not JUST because millions of people around the world have it (387 million, exceeding the entire US population), not JUST because someone dies from diabetes every 7 seconds (that adds up to 4.5 million deaths per year), but because many people do not even know they have diabetes until it is too late. And many people do not have access to adequate treatment….until the 7th second ticks for them.

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What can you do? Learn more by going to the 100 Campaign and taking their quiz. (You have one answer right there!)

To directly help those with diabetes RIGHT NOW, take the Big Blue Test. But hurry– the deadline to easily trigger a donation is Wednesday, 11/19.

Thanks to the International Diabetes Federation for the statistics. More to come on why you should give a damn about diabetes!

Meeting Meb

Two days after volunteering at the NYC Marathon, I caught word (via my fabulous running teammate Sam) that Meb Keflezighi was speaking at a FREE event at the New York Running Company that night. I had just enough time after work to prep dinner and vote in the midterm elections before heading up there. Score!

For those of you unfamiliar with running celebrities, Meb is one of America’s finest. He won the Boston Marathon this spring, as well as the NYC Marathon in 2009. He earned the silver medal for the marathon in Athens. And he was the top US finisher in NYC this year, finishing fourth.


Meb took plenty of time to answer our questions, share stories, and offer his personal tips for success. Here were just some of the highlights–

  • On NYC race day weather conditions– “It was so windy, I lost my hair!”
  • On his first thought upon completing the 2002 NYC Marathon, his first– “This is my FIRST and my LAST marathon!”
  • On his competitors in the race this year– “I was in eighth place. I saw the next runner up ahead and thought, I wonder if I could convince that guy to do what Mike Cassidy and I did last year…
  • For reference, this is what Meb and Mike Cassidy did last year. You may need tissues for that one. As a bonus, Mike was in the audience and was called forth for a hug with Meb.
  • On how he went from 8th to 4th– “I went after people, one at a time.”
  • How he handles pain in a race– “Temporary discomfort is something we all go through. I chose this discomfort. Others do not.” (He was specifically referencing people in Eritrea, where he was born.)
  • How he mentally prepped for Boston– “I was spectating and taking pictures on Boylston Street [in 2013]…for the next 365 days I thought, How can I positively change Boylston Street?
  • How to not slack off, part 1– “Just put your shoes on. If you can’t run, do pushups or situps while you watch TV.”
  • How to not slack off, part 2– “Get an accountability partner. Make appointments to train. And don’t text them that you can’t make it!”

Afterwards, Meb spoke a little bit about his fuel (and event sponsor) Generation Ucan, signed autographs, and posed for photos. I use Generation Ucan for marathon training, and it has helped me a lot. When I shared this with Meb, he was pleased and smiled big for a photo.

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As Greg McMillan says in his excellent three lessons Meb teaches us, how lucky we are to share the roads with him.

It’s Up to You, New York….New York!

Marathon day in NYC is one of my favorite days of the whole year.

Ever since I moved to the city in 2009, I’ve spent the day either running, cheering, or volunteering (whether for the race itself or for post-Sandy cleanup in 2012). This year it was mostly option c, with a little bit of b thrown in.

My running group, South Central Brooklyn Runners, had elected a group water stop at mile 7 on the course. Honest to God, volunteering at a water stop is a race unto itself. As Joel– a TNT coach, multiple marathoner and Ironman triathlete, and co-organizer of the whole thing– said, “I gotta say, volunteering for 7+ hours, setting up, handing out hydration, fighting the wind, trying to keep up with the volume of runners, and cleaning up was exhausting. I think it was harder than some of the marathons I’ve run.”

So here is how you spend your day when you volunteer at a water station in NYC: Continue reading

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