Essentialism and Racism via Psychology Today

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., published an article today on Psychology Today's website called The Roots of Racism, which examines the idea of race, and the way it contributes to the idea of racism.  After clearly separating the biological definition of race from the "folk-conception," the popular understanding of the concept of race, he begins tearing it apart.

The idea that members of the same race resemble one another is very widespread and intuitively compelling.  The only problem with it is that it’s dead wrong.

Consider the fact that any two people resemble one another in all sorts of ways.  [... therefore], it’s vacuous to say that members of the same race resemble one another.  I think that what people who say that members of a race are similar to one another really have in mind is something like this: “Members of the same race resemble one another in more ways than members of different races do.” But this doesn’t work either.  Michelle Obama and the late Barry White are ostensibly members of the same race, but does Michelle really look more like Barry than she looks like, say, Ann Romney?

If your knee-jerk response is, “Of course she does!” I urge you to think again, because your response suggests that you are in the grip of a powerful illusion. Did you evaluate all of the observable features of Michelle, Barry, and Ann before you came to your conclusion?  Of course you didn’t. You considered only very few traits—primarily skin color.

He then points out that there's a popular conception, the idea of "Passing," which completely undermines the premise of visual resemblance.  "[E]ven virulent racists tacitly admit that a person’s race isn’t determined by how they look.  In the folk-conception, appearance is diagnostic of race, but it’s not identical to it."

Finally, he brings it around to the subject of Essentialism, which I've written about before.  The idea of race, he points out, is the idea that there are groups of people defined by some inherent trait, that they all share and that no other group of people possess.

[This idea] doesn’t entail anything of moral significance about either group. However, the idea that another group of people are not of our kind situates them as what social psychologists call an “out-group.”  When this happens, [... w]e develop an “us and them” mentality that leads us to consider these others as a homogeneous mass rather than a group of individuals, and to think them as our moral inferiors.

The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these dispicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.

(Emphasis mine)

He concludes that those who oppose racism should concentrate their efforts on "undermining the very idea of race," which is the only point at which I disagree -- only because I don't think it's his place to dictate the course of progressive politics.

I do, however, agree that, as a cause all on its own, Essentialism needs to be combated.  It's a component in every awful way that humans interact with each other and the world, and we gain nothing by it that we would lose by understanding that it isn't true.

Google brain: Woo!

(via SourceFed) Google is doing the best thing in science yet.  They're creating a "Brain-styled neural network," which they're feeding random information off from YouTube.

So far, the computer knows what a cat is.  That's awesome.  (It's also great that it's what it learned from YouTube.) This isn't really the first step towards artificial intelligence, Google made that first step a long time ago, but it's a big one, and it means we might be close to seeing a singularity-like event.

The fact that the computer is learning how to identify and define things like 'cats' means it will likely soon come up with a definition for 'human,' and that will answer a pretty big question.

I don't think you can just ask a computer what a human is.  I would assume it'd be obvious to anyone that a computer's estimation of what a human is would just be a useful set of guidelines that aren't representative of some deep, universal truth.

In fact, that's my point.  I love the idea of a computer that can learn, because I think it makes it a lot more obvious, and a lot more undeniable, that the way we categorize things isn't some magic, universe-piercing insight, it's just a categorization set that's useful to us.  Our goals are to survive, so we're good at categorizing things in ways that relate to our biological survival.

Google's brain computer's goal would be to successfully interact with humans.  So, it's going to learn how to categorize things in a way that enables it to achieve concept-overlap between itself and the people it talks to.

SourceFed has already given us an example of people freaking out because it's totally going to kill us all.  And it's not going to do that, because it's got no reason to.  What I'm really looking forward to seeing is the people who get obsessively indignant about how it's totally not a human or whatever, and it's an abomination, or shouldn't have equal status, basically the whole spectrum of anti-robot racism is what I think we have to look forward to.

The medical community seems pretty awful lately

It's easy enough to be pissed at the healthcare industry for all the bull████ surrounding insurance, malpractice defensiveness, failure to inform their patients, unnecessary testing and price gouging.  But in the past couple days, I've seen stories that seem to suggest they're going out of their way to avoid coming off sympathetically even in the area of human decency.

Gender pay differences

According to Medical News Today, a new study published in the Jounral of the American Medical Association[1. This week in jama. JAMA. 2012;307(22):2345-2345.  doi:10.1001/jama.2012.3033.] reveals that there are still statistically substantial differences in wage between men and women in the medical field, "even after adjusting for differences in specialty, institutional characteristics, academic productivity, academic rank, work hours, and other factors."

Women practicing medicine at academic institutions make on average $12 thousand less than their male counterparts, end up in lower paying specialties, get fewer leadership roles and fewer publications.

The article offers some rationalizations, though:

Ultimately, it seems grossly unfair that a women doing the exact same job as a man should earn less pay. On the other hand, due to the nature of the different genders, there will always be women in the workforce who are less driven to push for promotions or take on leadership roles, or extra responsibilities and there might be a wide variety of reasons for this.

Oh.  Right.  Because women just don't try as hard, that explains why they make less money.  This pisses me off for the following reasons:

  • Women may not push as hard as men for leadership roles or extra hours, but that has a lot to do with the fact that women are systemically encouraged to be less aggressive and imposing.
  • "[...] due to the nature of the different genders, [...]".  Gender is a cultural construct.  It's not an unalterable quality of everyone of a particular sex.
  • "[...] there will always be women in the workforce who are less driven [...]" Seriously?  Always?  The justification for unequal circumstances is that those circumstances will always exist?  See points 1 and 2 -- it sounds like the argument here is, 'We don't plan on fighting sexism, so we might as well resign ourselves to the fact that it's not going away.'

Racism at UCLA

(via Laci Green on Tumblr)

So it turns out that UCLA, one of those medical institutions, has a major problem with racism.  The thrust of this story centers around the disgraceful treatment of Dr. Christian Head, a tenured surgeon who has filed a racial discrimination suit against the institution after it became clear that the administration had no intention of doing anything about the sustained, overt racial discrimination he faced.


Not only was Dr. Christian Head’s face superimposed onto the body of a gorilla standing on all-fours, but the photo also depicted him being sodomized by his Caucasian supervisor. This, unfortunately, was just one of a series of racially motivated incidents that Dr. Head has had to deal with over the past several years at UCLA. His complaints to administrative leaders at the Medical Center, the University and UC Regents have gone unanswered. In fact, his complaints have spurred additional acts of humiliation, attempts to push him out of academic medicine and retaliation.

But Dr. Head's case is just one example of what is clearly a systemic problem of racism at UCLA.  Here's the video about the case: