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January 05, 2009

Nature v. Nurture

The Dalai Lama

If any sensible person thinks deeply, he will respect justice. There is an inborn appreciation and respect for justice within our human body. In children, we find what is natural to be the human character. But as they grow up, they develop a lot of conditioning and wrong attitudes. I often feel there is more truthfulness in a small child and I find reasons to have confidence in human courage and human nature.

 -- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

When I was about eight years old, a new kid named Larry joined our school. To the teachers he was quiet and he often apologized without having done anything wrong. He stood out for being so polite. On the other hand, he had a great sense of humor. If you could get him to talk, especially during class, he had the funniest things to say -- which did sometimes lead to more apologies :) We were seated according to our family names, which put Larry right next to me. That twist of fate and his sense of humor was enough to guarantee that Larry became a friend of mine.

I noticed slowly that as I spent more time talking to Larry at lunch or on the playground, many of the kids who usually talked to me had stopped. It had not occurred to me that Larry could be the reason, until one day, they showed their true colors. It was after we had been let loose onto the playground, a group of kids called out to me from behind. I turned around and they began picking on me. I still did not know why until finally, someone blurted it out -- it was because Larry was black.

I did not fully understand what was going on, and I remember being genuinely surprised that anyone would think Larry was not a good friend to have. I did understand that these kids were wrong and that Larry needed someone to stick up for him. I stayed friends with Larry and especially since he was new I made an extra effort to invite him into games and help him make more friends.

That was it. Although I expected and braced for more confrontation, there was never another disagreement with the kids you could call "racist." I didn't even know that word, then, and the word seems harsh because we were all just kids. You would have to say their words and actions were racist, without labeling kids as such, personally. From the day of that confrontation on, those kids and I, and Larry and our friends, had a live and let live sort of arrangement. I remember offering for them to join a game of dodgeball, and them declining. Most of the kids in my classes stayed the same from year to year, but Larry did not stay in our school for long, and I don't know why he left. His family probably had to move out as suddenly as they had to move in, and in any case, he was soon gone. I remember noticing there were no other black kids to be friends with. That effectively ended our experience with diversity, until later in life.

The experience of being Larry's friend has come back to me a few times since, especially when I wonder what role a typical "kids are cruel" story like mine has to play in the debate over nature and nurture. Are children born with an appreciation and respect for justice like the Dalai Lama says, until they are socialized to accept injustice? Could the opposite be true, that children are born cruel, then need socialization to understand and accept justice?

To answer that question in my own experience, I would need to know a lot more than I do about my classmates. Were they exposed to racist ideas at home and in their media and entertainment, or did they grow up in a home like mine, where my parents raised us to not see race at all? In my family, we saw our fair share of the TV show "Sesame Street" which has always been famous for its racial and ethnic equality, see for example this article from 1990 in The New York Times

Kids may be cruel in some general sense, but if I had to guess, then I would never expect to find that kids are born racist. We don't have to guess, of course; science is available to help answer if we are born racist or cruel, how, and why, and even to help us connect the dots to change the answers we don't like. For the general question we can start with an expert, Dr. Steven Parker of WebMD, who writes about children's health. In his 2008 article "Cruel Kids and Tribalism," he seems convinced that any natural cruelty in kids can be overcome with good, common sense parenting skills. "Get involved" is his summary advice to parents. Don't advise your children to ignore bullies; deal with it.

Racism is the essential cruelty I am addressing for a few reasons. First, race has been a part of my life experience, not only in my friendship with Larry but in many ways. For example, I am married to a wonderful woman of a different race, and together she and I have faced some racism from both our families. I am also addressing race because the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has stirred the pot in America and around the world. With his white mother from Kansas and his black father from Kenya, and the rest of his compelling life story, he has gotten the world talking about race. That's as it should be, as there is much to talk about.

Finally, I am addressing race as an example of cruelty and injustice because racism is so common to the experience of all people, and because it is so plainly wrong. To state the obvious, you are born in your skin and you can do nothing about it, aside perhaps from some slight, temporary, and unhealthy darkening with a tan or lightening with cosmetics. The idea that having darker or lighter skin should be used to decide your value as a person is as common as it is unfair.

So are we born racists, and if so then can we be cured? Are we not born racists, but made racists by our cultures, and if so then how can we cure that, too? The case of Nature v. Nurture is much broader than this question of racism, but this is a prime example of the debate; I suggest starting with Wikipedia for more on Nature v. Nurture in general.

Barack Obama's election in 2008 provides a popular example of non-scientific reasons for hope: according to the conventional wisdom of professional pundits, younger voters did not consider race a factor in their decision making -- that link is to Tina Wells at The Huffington Post, a celebrated youth marketing consultant but not a scientist. The story goes that younger voters were raised after equal and civil rights were enjoyed by all races in America, and that their schools taught them racism was wrong, or even taught them not to see race at all. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. said "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Especially since Americans lost MLK, Bobby Kennedy, and others to that movement, we have fought to make MLK's dream come true. Naturally, Americans want to believe we are getting somewhere.

Then there are the voting trends, which imply racism and its receeding over generations. Younger voters favored Obama by a large margin, while older voters favored his white opponent. If the conventional wisdom is right, that younger voters are essentially less racist, then one conclusion we would draw: children are nurtured or conditioned with respect to race. People who grew up in a time when racism was more accepted are more likely to be racist. People who grow up in a time when racism is not accepted are less likely to be racist.

It is a hugely popular political theory, and it makes a good story, but is there science to back it up, or otherwise? You can find plenty of statements from respected scientists drawing the conclusion, such as Alexandre Mas and Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley, in their serious work from December 2008, "Racial Bias in the 2008 Presidential Election," where they concluded plainly that "Older people tend to be less tolerant of minorities." For historical context we can refer to The Gallup Poll from relevant years, asking what percentage of Americans would not vote for a black candidate for president. As shared by Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, "In 1958 53% of Americans (and 58% of white Americans) would not vote for a black candidate for president. By 1989 that figure was down to 19%, and by 2007 to 5%." The conventional wisdom seems to hold; however, we are lacking information per age group. It may be the case that racism in America is declining across all age groups over time. Older voters may have had a different reason, such as social security policy, for giving Obama less support as an age group. Without further data, we could only say for sure that racism, when it comes to considering a candidate for president, is well on the way out.

If we want to push racism all the way out, we need to ask how we have gotten this far against it. To know even that, though, we should return to the question of nature v. nurture. Racism exists, but are we born with it? As recently as 2004, Steve Connor, Science Editor of The Independent in the UK, published that "Racism and xenophobia could have a deep-seated biological basis dating from our Stone Age past, explaining why people naturally tend to shun outsiders." He was essentially passing on the work of Mark Pagel of Reading University and Ruth Mace of University College London in the aptly titled journal "Nature." Their speculation, however, is pure game theory and hypothesis -- unsubstantiated assumptions from which logic is followed to provide a possible explanation for their observations.

Their "observations" of the way people interacted thousands of years ago are subjective, and their hypothesis is rooted in assumption, not evidence. I read their 2004 ideas as a convenient way for everyone to effectively say "racism is not my fault, I was born this way." If they had actual evidence to support their story that would be well worth considering, but it reads like just one possible story to fit known facts -- facts as flimsy as "prior to the rise of agriculture in about 8,000 BC, human societies lived in close-knit tribes of hunter-gatherers." Yes, but that hardly requires xenophobia, and is nothing Nature or The Independent should have reported as a scientific discovery.

Thankfully a few cooler heads were available in a 2005 issue of Psychological Science, where Princeton University researchers Mary Wheeler and Susan Fiske reported that racial fears are not a part of our born nature, instead they are socialized. Their work was pragmatically titled "Controlling Racial Prejudice," and they were more to the point in their methodology, too. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure activity in the amygdala -- the part of the brain which kicks in a fear response called "rapid vigilance." An important finding: "Fiske said amygdala and stereotype activation only happened when 'thinking about the faces categorically and superficially'." Some of the same research and more was wrestled down in an excellent, longer form article in 2007, "Prejudice, discrimination: is racism inborn?" by the indefatigable blogger Improbulus.

It means that while we naturally fear someone we have grouped or categorized as foreign, if we perceive that person as an individual instead of as a generic foreigner, then with that one change in perception we experience no natural racism. Without nurture, perhaps nature leading to racism would prevail, but we have it within us to defeat racism. Doing so is a matter of education.

That certainly sounds promising. Education primarily targets the young, though, and we don't want to wait. There is more recent, good news from ScienceDaily: "Television Shows Can Affect Racial Judgments," a study led by Dana Mastro of the University of Arizona, and "Negative Perception Of Blacks Rises With More News Watching, Studies Say," thank you in those cases to University of Illinois professor Travis Dixon. “The fact is we still largely live in a segregated society, so our perceptions of other groups largely come through the media,” Dixon said. I call this good news because it means that intentionally produced, anti-racist media can have an impact. It means that lobbying the press to be fair in their coverage is not only to settle a theoretical score. If the press is more fair, we can expect it to improve race relations, and we can expect if the press is aware of this research then they will be motivated even further to be more fair. Science has helped us sharpen our tools. What was a hopeful, moral plea cannot be denied its practicality, and whether we appeal to media corporations or to government agency oversight, fairness in portrayal of ethnicity and race can be confidently codified as media policy. For more, see "Intersection of Race and Telecomm Policy: Andrew Jay Schwartzman" from The Benton Foundation, 2008.

This brings us back again to the election of Barack Obama, by taking us back first to the most popular TV show in America for five years in a row, during the 1980s and 1990s: "The Cosby Show." Cosby and his TV wife were black professionals whose charming family was much better off financially than the average black family in America. During the show's run and ever since in syndication, debate has continued over the show's impact on race relations. For a time, a consensus had started to emerge that "The Cosby Show" was actually bad for race relations, pondered in The Seattle Times as the show drew to a close, in 1992. The concern was that Cosby was not doing enough to confront and inform on race related issues, economic or otherwise.

In the 1990s, Bill Cosby spoke up to defend their work: "A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, 'Yeah, that's the way I see it too.' Okay. He's white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right? So I figure this way I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy" -- that's from Ronald Smith's 1997 update of his book, "Cosby: The Life of a Comedy Legend."

Then in 2008, twenty years after The Cosby Show had dominated American television, Cosby was suddenly being credited with helping the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Tim Arango at The New York Times went so far as to publish just days after the election: "Before Obama, There Was Bill Cosby" in which he confidently connected the dots. It could not have been that simple, as Brent Cunningham at Columbia Journalism Review explained, and as debated more publicly at The Huffington Post. The idea was compelling enough, though, that even Bill Cosby himself acknowledged there could be something to it.

We can take comfort knowing that science says so, too -- Bill Cosby and TV kin probably did help to make Barack Obama's election possible. Every public service announcement, every After School Special, every non-profit running a campaign to fight racism and every newscast covering a non-profit doing so, they all likely helped to reach people and break down barriers. Making more media, particularly when we encourage people to judge not by grouping people but by their individual characters, can help change attitudes even more for the better.

We might come away from this accounting with the idea that much has been accomplished, that America has come far, but what of the racism remaining in America and in the world? All over the world -- in Mexico, across all of Asia, even within the black community in America -- prejudice and discrimination based on the relative lightness or darkness of a person's skin remains for many a crippling social issue. From outside India for example, most Europeans or Americans might think that all Indians are the same race, so racism should not be a problem among Indians.

To the contrary though, inside India, the obsession with having lighter skin is a lifelong burden for anyone who is born with relatively darker skin. This is as basically unfair, and as damaging to human society as racism. If you are not from India, then to appreciate the problem view two short video advertisements played often on Indian television. See this, marketing a popular cosmetic product called "Fair and Lovely" to women, and this too, marketing the same to men.

The general advertising campaign, the cosmetics industry, and the entire problem of skin lightness or darkness -- many simply call it racism -- has begun to cause due uproar both outside and inside India. Heather Timmons at The New York Times covered the general advertising trend in 2007, and Emily Wax at The Washington Post expanded on the story in 2008. Anushka Asthana of The Observer, Guardian News and Media in the UK pulled fewer punches later in 2008, in a more passionate article "We all know it's wrong to judge by skin colour ... so why do we do it?"

We have seen in our limited review of racism and cruelty that compassion is natural, but it must be nurtured. People's natural reactions can lead them away from compassion, or they can be conditioned to be less compassionate, unless we assert compassion. Neither nature nor nurture are all the roots of racism, nor is either all of the solution. A CompassionRise reader, Lawrence Perkins recently commented: "The world has gotten confused. We hear Tolerance over and over. Yet it only leads to apathy... Compassion on the other hand, compels us to intervene ... to make a difference." Thank you Lawrence, your comment helped motivate my follow-through with today's in depth article.

Today's CompassionRise has covered a lot of ground because the Dalai Lama's wisdom pointed us down a long, broad, and important road, the way of our human nature and what our cultures make of it, a road we all walk together. From my third grade year of school, weaving in and out of American history, popular culture, scientific and media analysis, and then generalizing to acknowledge the global, human issue of racism -- the messages derived of the Dalai Lama's words were too important to be given less attention. This is compassion. It is not enough to sympathize, to empathize, to simply hope or to wish or to pray for a better world. We need to continue searching, observing and measuring, defining and pushing. A hopeful perspective is in itself valuable, but we must test it and follow our experiments and research to practical results, with an honest desire for greater good and an open mind about how it may be achieved. Compassion is not a passive ethic or belief, it is a call and a means to make this a better world.