Gray Matter: Neuroscience offers insight on institutionalized racism

In a 1995 study published in Psychological Review, researcher Mahzarin Banaji, who said she did not consider herself racist, was astounded and humiliated to discover she couldn’t perform a task associating positive adjectives with Black faces as easily as she could for white faces. In the early 2000s, economist Marianne Bertrand conducted a study in which she sent out more than 1,300 job applications with different names, and she found that Black-sounding names received 50% fewer job interviews than traditionally white names. 

Today, police brutality is a leading cause of death for Black men. In fact, one in 1,000 Black men is killed in violent altercations with police officers, which is 2.5 times higher than for white men. All of these cases are manifestations of implicit racial bias, a phenomenon coined in the late 1990s by Banaji, though such a phenomenon persisted far longer.

An issue that has stubbornly persisted for so long inevitably raises questions as to why progress has been so slow. The neurological basis of racism can shed some clarity on this question and offer insight on how we can overcome implicit bias.

The brain operates on two systems of thinking, depending on the type of information that is taken in. One system performs quick, automatic processing, while the other system is slow, deliberate and requires conscious effort. Generally, the faster system handles emotionally driven input. Unfortunately, racial bias falls under that category. 

Research has shown that the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with fear, plays a central role in forming and reacting to racial bias. This rapid, instinctive processing of racial prejudice explains why Banaji was so quick to select negative words for pictures of Black faces, why employers are more likely to dismiss job applications with Black-sounding names and why police officers are faster to pull the trigger when confronting a Black person. Simply put, deep-rooted racial biases come to mind before any rational thinking can take place. 

Because they pop up automatically, we are not cognizant of them. Understanding the neural mechanisms that dictate the way we think about race can encourage everyone to question their gut reactions and override them with rational thinking.

It is also important to address the “how” and the “why” of these implicit biases. Despite the subconscious nature of implicit racism, it is not inherent — instead, it is learned. Unfortunately, today’s society paints an unfavorable picture for underrepresented  groups. An experiment by researchers at Tufts University found that the brain is so keen to pick up on race-based associations that even on-screen body language without sound is enough for people to form assumptions about different races. 

On a neurological level, repeated exposure to the same information, like racist stereotypes, chemically strengthens the connection between adjacent neurons that fire together to process that information. This process, called long-term potentiation, or memory formation, shows that over time, neurons that have undergone LTP are more likely to fire together, meaning it becomes easier to recall repeated information.

As the brain learns negative associations for discriminated groups, the amygdala begins to respond to those groups as a survival instinct, albeit a very misguided one. The amygdala’s induced response ranges from developing a negative “gut feeling” based on race to triggering a full-fledged threat response to someone perceived as dangerous. These responses shape the implicit biases that infiltrate all aspects of society to establish the deeply entrenched system of institutional racism that exists today. 

In this digital age that exposes people to large quantities of information so rapidly, racist rhetoric is more harmful than ever, especially considering the severity of its neurological impact. It is imperative for the media, public figures and people in general to change the narrative surrounding discriminated groups to weaken and eventually eliminate this misguided survival instinct. 

Because racial bias is learned, it can be unlearned. Through repeated exposure to stimuli perceived as averse in non-threatening environments, the brain can unlearn fear-driven associations, including racism. In addition to fighting individual prejudice, the neurological basis of racism can be applied to combat racism structurally. For example, incorporating these neurological principles into reforming police officer training could be instrumental in overhauling the existing racist justice system. Doing so will require significant change on both an individual and societal level, but being cognizant of one’s own bias is the first step to making that change.