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Are we hardwired to be racist?

Our brains — “survival machines,” as neuroscientist David Amodio calls them — evolved very early to make quick judgments on whether or not something is a threat.

“The basic machinery for gut reactions and snap judgments was present in the brains of our distant ancestors, and the same structures are still found in our brains today, primarily in the human subcortex,”wrote Amodio in his article, “The Egalitarian Brain.” “These relatively simple mechanisms for detecting us vs.

Them — and for automatically treating ‘them’ as a threat — are quite helpful for species living in basic societies that do not require cooperation with outside groups.”

Does this mean bias is hardwired into our brains, even though our society has changed? No, according to Amodio. The brain is flexible and can learn to ignore its biased impulses.

“While studies have shown that people are generally unable to deliberately turn down the intensity of a feeling or a stereotypic thought, people are quite effective at responding to those thoughts or feelings in a way that blocks the actual expression of bias,” wrote Amodio.

“The brain cannot be anti-racist, per se, because it never stops spotting differences and sorting people into categories. But it is pro-goal — and if the goal is to make judgments without regard to race, the brain can do that, though it may take a bit of effort and practice.”

 

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