If We Learn "Race," We Can Unlearn Race

Barry Scheck is co-founder of The Innocence Project, the purpose of which is to utilize DNA technology to free people wrongfully accused of crimes in which DNA evidence is available. The Innocence Project has had a number of spectacular successes, including the case of Ronald Cotton, who was convicted based on the eyewitness account of the victim, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and later exonerated by DNA testing. Scheck says that this and other cases are proof positive that:

The majority race is not as good at identifying minorities as it is its own race. This is hard-wired in some way that we don't completely understand. But the phenomenon should be presented to the jury.

Some day, I'm going to tattoo across my forehead "It is nuture, not nature, you numbnuts."

Scheck is right that studies show that members of a racial** majority in America tend to have trouble differentiating between the facial features of the racial minorities. This does not, however, mean that it is "hard-wired," which denotes a biological or genetic basis. Why is this an important distinction? If it's not clear, it's an important distinction because if you're saying that racial prejudice is (or prejudices are) hard-wired, then they are impossible to eradicate and take on an air of social acceptability. That, to me, is unacceptable.

Everyone among us has prejudices. Human beings love to distinguish between "us" and "them," to classify groups of things or people in one way in order to produce some sort of order. Melanin saturation and other so-called "racial" features like eye shape or hair texture tend to be easy ways for visual creatures to classify one another. But in the absence of what one might term obvious physical differences , humans will pick out less obvious characteristics to classify those around them. Thus can a blonde-haired, blue-eyed person like myself (called "too Aryan-looking to take home" by one of my Jewish friends in college) be immediately distinguishable in Southern Germany as Anglo, or a Luo in Kenya distinguish a passing Kikuyu and target him or her for ethnic violence. That we notice differences is hard-wired: what differences we notice are learned.

So why do many members of the American white majority have difficulty distinguishing the individual facial features of members of American racial minorities? In part, it's because as a society (especially among older generations), we're still fairly segregated. Many white people in this country can go their entire childhoods, at least, without ever spending any significant time with a person of another race — let alone enough people to necessitate a need to learn to differentiate between facial features. Heck, in my hometown to this day, there are only 65 people black people. Total. Differentiating between facial features of individuals is a learned skill, and if you only learn to do it within a small subset of the universe of facial features, then a "black" nose is going to be a "black" nose is going to be a "black" nose to you. It's not a good thing, and it's not a smart thing, and it's not an educated thing, but it's a true thing — and, to a degree, it cuts both ways. That it is less prevalent among minorities in the U.S. is probably because of their inability to live in an almost completely segregated environment and because of the prevalence of white people in popular media mitigates that experience for most minority Americans

Second off, race is a primary identifying factor for most people — it's often the first thing we notice about one another because it's an obvious difference and one we're talk holds some importance, and so all other identifying factors will come after that. It is, in fact, one of the first things a police officer will ask you if you are unlucky enough to be a crime victim, so it's the first thing upon which your mind will seize. But when we're identifying members of our own race, we tend to dismiss it mentally and imprint on the other facial features which we feel distinguishes us and the person we're trying to describe. Once again, it's not a good thing or a smart thing, but white people having difficult being able to accurate describe or identify black people is far from something hard-wired into our genetic code — it's something we have learned to do, or learned not to do

So, Mr. Scheck, I understand that more than a decade of spending your time mired in scientific data has made your more susceptible to thse nature-over-nurture arguments, and I understand the need to be able to tell jurors about the difficulty inherent in eyewitness identifications — which, by the way, are relatively unreliable regardless of race. But could you please, please, please never again say how racial prejudice is "hard-wired" into us? The last thing your cause needs is for people to start talking about which socially-learned traits are hard-wired into people. Thanks.

**Race, by the way, is an inherently social construct, since many scientists agree that there is more genetic diversity within so-called races than between them.

Race Sometimes A Problem In Eyewitness IDs [AP]

Image by Lindsay Beyerstein [Flickr]