A recent New York Times article opens with a false dichotomy. Its peg is the overly forceful arrest of James Blake by a plainclothes police officer. The arrest, for which New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton has since apologized, occurred when the biracial tennis star was mistaken for another black man suspected of ID theft. (This man, it was later discovered, was also innocent.) “Racism, pure and simple, some said,” is how the article characterizes the subsequent outrage. “But was it?”
The article goes on to describe a cognitive bias called “other-race effect,” which makes it easier for individuals to distinguish among faces of those who share their race. Meaningful cross-racial exposure, the Times claims, can mitigate the effect, but according to one professor who studied the subject in the 1960s, “That racially loaded phrase ‘They all look alike to me’ turns out to be largely scientifically accurate.”
The science behind other-race effect is, in fact, quite complicated.
“Although the ORB [own-race bias] was originally explained in terms of experience with racial in-group members (i.e., people have a lifetime of experience recognizing members of their own race), there is increasing evidence that self-categorization with a group leads to in-depth or individuated processing of in-group members. … Indeed, the so-called ORB has been replicated across a variety of nonracial social categories,” reads (pdf) a research article in a 2008 volume of Psychological Science.
The perception of racial minorities by whites as out-group is learned, the result of social conditioning, evidenced by the fact that in-group facial recognition is higher among members of multiracial teams. Far from proving that racism isn’t at play in cases of mistaken identity, psychology has proved just how damaging and pervasive racism can be. It literally distorts how we see the world.
Racism is neither pure nor simple. The very social forces that cultivate these biases also help explain why Blake, mistaken for a nonviolent criminal, was essentially assaulted at the hands of the New York City Police Department, the reason for much of the public outcry and Blake’s own justification for demanding that the officer be fired.
The Times attempts to divorce these issues, noting that “none of the experts interviewed condoned the white officer’s rough handling of Mr. Blake,” but they are deeply related. A white professor, claiming to have been occasionally mistaken for other white men, says, “I don’t think we should be offended. This is really an ability issue. And a very unfortunate issue for Mr. Blake.” That is, frankly, easy for him to say. These mix-ups are, for him, unlikely to result in bodily harm, what he terms an “unfortunate issue.”
The bias is used by the Times, however, in an overly generous fashion, to wave away any manner of sins. In one case, it is a professor who frequently mistakes two of her Chinese graduate students, to whom she has presumably had a great deal of meaningful exposure. In another, a grossly unprepared entertainment reporter who confused Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne while interviewing the former on live television. Jackson, clearly not pleased, did not wait until commercials to tear into the anchor. “You’re the entertainment reporter?” he asked. “You’re the entertainment reporter for this station, and you don’t know the difference between me and Laurence Fishburne? There must be a very short line for your job.”
The piece subtly scolds Jackson for this response, drawing a normative conclusion. “People should remember that it can take time and effort to decode faces across color lines,” it warns. But the onus is not on minorities to be patient and sensitive when these incidents occur. Instead, it falls upon those who have the cognitive bias, and the institutions that foster it, to actively work to correct it. The need becomes particularly urgent when it prevents government employees in a majority-nonwhite city from effectively carrying out their sworn duties. The NYPD seems inclined to do no such thing.
Despite the police officer’s history of racial profiling, Commissioner Bratton denied that race played any role in the incident. “This rush to put a race tag on it, I’m sorry, that’s not involved in this at all,” he said.
“People who need to identify those of other races—in the workplace or elsewhere—are more likely to be successful than people who simply have meaningful experiences with members of other racial groups,” the Times notes.
This suggests that we should draw the opposite normative claim, that these cases occur with such frequency because those who slip up are too rarely held accountable. Rather than coddling white individuals when their cognitive biases interfere with their responsibilities, we ought to impose higher professional and social costs, especially when the potential costs to the victims of own-race bias are massive. They have been patient long enough.
Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New Republic and Salon, among others. Follow her on Twitter.