Inside the Racist Mind

Bias is the complex neural interplay between emotions and beliefs

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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What ideas are inside the racist mind? Psychotherapist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's legendary 1996 book, The Anatomy of Prejudices, surmised that racism is a way of seeing blacks as lesser human beings--both intellectually inferior and uncivilized. This aided the perpetuation of slavery, Jim Crow and the current situation in which blackness is all but synonymous with criminality. A national survey published in the journal Social Forces in 2007 found that 15% of Americans believe that blacks "pose a greater threat to public safety than other groups." Americans also tend to overestimate the proportion of crimes committed by blacks. In one survey, 37.5% of the 2,223 respondents believed that 60% or more of the people arrested the previous year for violent crimes were black, when in fact blacks accounted for only 38.4% of violent-crime arrests. "Social developments have led to the widespread racial typification of crime, a process that essentializes race in terms of crime and crime in terms of race, thereby demonizing blacks as the locus of threat," conclude researchers from the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.

This was likely the stereotype influencing George Zimmerman's decisions on the night he shot Trayvon Martin. He thought Martin was "up to no good," "on drugs" and concealing a weapon: "He's got his hand in his waistband." None of these things were true. Zimmerman is also said to have mentored two black children in his neighborhood. Does that prove he's not a racist? No. The human mind is filled with contradictions. Zimmerman may have behaved in a caring way toward the children, but spotting a tall black teenager at night triggered a bias nonetheless. This duality is common. We give humanity to those we know, but the true test is, Can we extend it to those we don't?

Touré is a columnist for TIME Ideas and the author of Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?, a New York Times notable book for 2011

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