You would like to think that academe hit rock bottom last summer, with the release of a study by the University of California at Berkeley proving that conservatives are mentally ill. Conducted by four researchers, two of them Berkeley profs, the study culled through 50 years of research literature about the psychology of conservatism (as the press release put it) to establish that the sickness manifests itself in rampant intolerance and a conscienceless capacity for cruelty. Hitler, Mussolini and former President Ronald Reagan were individuals, the study confidently asserted, but all were right-wing conservatives because they preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality in some form.
Who would have thought that just four months later, another study, by Dartmouth College researchers, would challenge the Berkeley one for offensiveness and idiocy? PROOF THAT BIGOTRY CAN TAX THE BRAIN, one newspaper report described the study. To discern the hidden presence of racial bias in white thinking, the researchers confronted a group of well-educated and well-meaning white undergraduate volunteers with images and words associated with black people and with the presence of a black experimenter, and then, using magnetic-resonance imaging, they measured activity in the students brains.
It turned out that the higher the test subject scored on the bias meterthe more his brain showed agitationthe worse he later performed on a test of cognitive ability. The effect of contact with another race taxed the biased white brain to the point of making it unable to concentrate. Imagine the excitement of the researchers as the tools of objective research confirmed what theyd known all along: that Jim Crow might be dead and buried but that residual racism survives in white heartseven if unconnected in any way to actual behavior.
Yet knowing who these kids were, isnt it just as likely that all the test showed was their hypersensitivity not to be racistbecause they know thats what it means to be a nice, ethical person in 2003? Perhaps true, study author Jennifer Richeson replies, but struggling too hard not to appear racist shows that one is uncomfortable with members of other racesand hence still biased. [The test subjects are] being more careful when talking to a black person. Theyre trying to make sure not to say the wrong thing, Richeson explains. Talk about defining bias down!
In fact, any well-meaning white person finding himself with electrodes on his head whose brain waves dont go haywire when confronted with racial imagery and an unknown black person ought to have his head examined. For these days, even the most innocuous statement or action can bring down the devastating charge of racism.
Consider an incident at the University of Virginia just a week before the Dartmouth study came out. In the midst of a free-wheeling conversation about favorite sports teams, an employee of the schools medical center said something like: I cant believe in this day and age that theres a sports team in our nations capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called the Niggers would be to blacks.
Though nobody present was offended, since the context was perfectly understood, the employees remark ignited a firestorm. The staff union at U.Va. sponsored a protest against racism at U.Va., and Julian Bond, national chairman of the NAACP and a history professor at the school, demanded that the offending employee make a public apology and undergo sensitivity training. As night follows day, the university president issued a mealy-mouthed statement, calling on all members of the university community to be alert to the rights and dignity of all our people and also alert to racial and other insults.
All this in reaction to a guy trying his hardest to prove that hes not a racist. At least they didnt strap him into Dartmouths new Race-O-Meter.