Lehigh University
Lehigh University


#LehighMLK: Gordon Moskowitz on recognizing inherent bias

Gordon Moskowitz, chair of the psychology department, is a member of Lehigh's MLK committee.

This essay by Gordon Moskowitz, professor and department chair of psychology, is the third in a series of essays on social justice, civil rights and the criminal justice system written by faculty involved in the MLK planning process. This year’s celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues at 3 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 24, when Josh Correll, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, delivers a lecture titled “From Amadou to Trayvon: A Persistent Bias to Shoot Black Men and What We Might Do About It.” The event will take place in the Scheler Humanities Forum (Linderman 200).

Few people take the time to contemplate the wide variety of motivations that give rise to prejudiced feelings and stereotyped thoughts. This is largely a function of the fact that most of us believe we do not have prejudices. Indeed, we are defensive about, and strongly reject the notion that, we might hold biases. Yet judges provide more (and harsher) rulings of guilt for the same crimes committed by African-Americans. And doctors suggest preferred medical procedures to African-Americans less often than they do to whites who suffer from the same diseases (and are less likely to suggest proactive measures such as preventive screenings or examinations).

Further, police officers are faster to shoot an African-American who poses a threat and, perhaps more amazingly, are more likely to shoot an innocent African-American than a white man. Employers spend less time during interviews with African-American job applicants, teachers grade the same essays differentially based on who they believe is its author, admissions officers unknowingly shift the criteria they see as essential so as to justify their preference for a white student over an African-American student, and in every day interactions among two people from different ethnic groups, there is heightened stress (evidenced by physiological measures) and increased avoidance (evidenced by behavioral measures).

Bias is widespread, and though dramatically different in form from the days of segregated life and of a justice system that could mete out corporal punishment on the streets and in the woods, the consequences are still harsh: disparities in infant mortality, life expectancy, and the expectancy of having a life marked by justice and liberty.

How can it be that bias is so widespread when a vast majority of people condemn it intellectually? When a giant harvest moon rises on the horizon on a clear October night, we have no problem identifying that our senses are producing biased perceptions of reality. Clearly the moon does not change size as it moves across the sky, but that is what our senses tell us is true. We sometimes see objects in ways that are blatantly distorted and wrong, and we recognize this. Yet when it comes to seeing people, we fail to shine the same harsh light of self-reflection to allow us to see when and how we are biased.

Ultimately this is a question about the motives that we believe drive biases in the social world. Unlike how we see the moon, we presume that biases in how we see people are manifestations of a flawed character, an evil intent, a desire to subjugate, and feelings of ill will. To admit bias is thus to admit to having acquiesced to these motives. However, terrible disparities can be the unintended outcomes of motivations as simple as a desire to preference one’s own group, the need to produce quick and easy answers, trying to avoid uncertainty and awkward encounters, and wanting to experience the world as a just and controllable place. Malicious intent is part of the problem of contemporary prejudice, but it is not the whole story.

My wish is that we all take some time during our celebration of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King to contemplate the wide variety of motivations that give rise to prejudiced feelings and stereotyped thoughts, and to reflect on how we may at times see people in the same distorted way we see the moon.

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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