How Your Brain Looks at Race

Not even Obama thinks America is 'post racial.' But neuroscience, like the primary results, suggests we are not doomed to see things in black and white.

Robert Kurzban remembers when he felt a whisper of hope that racism was neither inevitable nor permanent, and certainly not something hard-wired into the human brain. He had just Photoshopped different colored basketball jerseys onto images of eight young men, some black and some white, that he was using for a psychology experiment. Volunteers viewing the photos on a computer screen heard each man say something like "you were the ones that started the fight"; a few minutes later they had to remember who said what. Human memory being what it is, the volunteers made mistakes. But it was the nature of the mistakes that gave Kurzban hope. If a quote was spoken by a white man wearing a yellow jersey, the volunteers typically misattributed it to a man also wearing a yellow jersey—but of either race. In a startling twist on the old saw that "they all look alike to me," the volunteers mistook one yellow-shirted guy for another, but not one African-American for another or one white man for another. The brain, then, can override racial categories with something as arbitrary as shirt color. "This happened even though people have a lifetime of experience of categorizing others by race, but only a few minutes of categorizing by shirt color," says Kurzban, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Under some circumstances, you can get people to ignore race."

Is this presidential campaign such a circumstance? One experiment in the artificial setting of a lab might not be very persuasive on the question of whether racism is eradicable, especially when pitted against real-world evidence of how African-American home buyers are discriminated against by financial institutions, for instance, and dark-skinned criminal defendants are treated more harshly than whites by jurors. But the primaries and caucuses have produced equally real-world evidence that race may matter much less than it once did. Barack Obama won the 93 percent white Iowa caucuses, and carried the white vote in Illinois, Wisconsin and other states. Democratic primary voters are not exactly representative of the whole electorate, however, and in November even small pockets of racism could make a difference. Whether they do, say political strategists and scientists who study racism, depends on how well Obama can manage something akin to the scientists' ruse with the basketball jerseys: persuade voters who might reject an African-American or biracial candidate to re-draw the lines that denote who is "one of us" and "on my side."

Obama himself does not believe that America is "post racial," a phrase he rejects as naive. To the contrary, reports NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe, who reports from the Obama campaign, the senator recognizes that the country's legacy of racism is too deep to be eradicated overnight, or even over the course of his campaign. Nevertheless, Obama has said, voters are judging candidates on their ability to fix health care, foreign policy, the economy and education, not on a candidate's racial identity.

Just a few short years ago, neuroscientists as well as political consultants would have called that wishful thinking. Scientists believed that the human brain automatically classifies individuals by race, just as we classify them by sex and age. Recent research confirms that the brain evolved specialized circuits that make the latter two classifications. But the idea of a brain module for racial categorization was always problematic. Simply put, back when the human brain was evolving a few million years ago, our ancestors didn't get around much. They therefore had no chance to encounter people who looked different from themselves. "There would be no adaptive advantage to a mental module that automatically took note of someone's race," says Penn's Kurzban. His basketball-jersey experiment and others that have confirmed its results suggest that humans do have brain circuits for classifying people—but according to whether they are likely to be an ally or an enemy. In some societies, skin color can indeed be a true clue to that: in the Jim Crow South, if you had black skin, it would have been quite useful to quickly classify a white-skinned person as someone who might shove you off a sidewalk, or worse. In other societies, however, skin color is no indicator of whether someone is friend or foe, as the recent tribe-on-tribe bloodshed in Kenya shows. It therefore makes more sense for the brain not to get hung up on skin color or other race-based aspects of appearance, but to be flexible and nimble about which signs of group membership—of "like me" and "on my side"—it picks up.

Candidates have a choice about which such signs they present to voters. In his 1984 presidential campaign, Jesse Jackson said repeatedly that it was "black people's turn" in Washington. That made it inevitable that many voters would see him as a black candidate more than as, say, the candidate of change or economic populism. Obama has not taken that path. "Senator Obama hasn't run away from being black, but he hasn't run a campaign that is defined by him being black," says Kam Kuwata, a Democratic campaign consultant and former campaign manager for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Obama has made sure that voters see him as, first, a Democrat—an identity that will become even more prominent if he wins the nomination. In politics, the most salient group identity is party; about 80 percent of both Democrats and Republicans vote for their party's presidential nominee, and in a campaign where Democrats are fired up more than they have been in years, that percentage could be even larger.

Obama has assumed additional identities beyond party affiliation—or, as scientists put it, offered voters novel ways to show he is one of them. "He's run a campaign that is defined by a certain generational change, and a certain change in operation," says Kuwata. "That's what's allowed him to bring so many people together." In a general election against John McCain, he can also forge an identity as the out-of-Iraq and increase-taxes-on-the-rich candidate, the change candidate, or any number of issues that signal to large blocs of voters that he is on their side.

Which is not to say there are no "over my dead body" voters—those who would vote for an African-American or biracial candidate only on the day after hell froze over. Their ranks, however, are smaller than they were in 1982, when large numbers of white voters who expressed support for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's gubernatorial run in pre-election polls couldn't bring themselves to pull the lever for him on Election Day. Bradley lost. The phenomenon is still known as "the Bradley effect." "It's foolish for anyone to assume these conditions have disappeared," says political consultant Paul Maslin of the Bradley effect. "There may still be people who are taken with the romantic notion of Obama's historic candidacy, but then are reminded of his race, and change their mind." Still, says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, "I don't think they're a large component of the Democratic Party. And in a general election, they probably wouldn't vote for [Obama] anyway, regardless of race."

Lest this seem Pollyannaish, let's note that racism isn't dead. Because America remains at least partly segregated, the mental module that classifies people—by noticing who are your neighbors, colleagues, fellow students or others "like you"—picks up skin color as one relevant marker. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee got a cruel reminder of that in 2006. After five terms in Congress, he lost his bid for the Senate, an election many expected him to win. In the closing days of the campaign, Republicans ran an ad in which a young white actress describes meeting Ford "at the Playboy party," and, smirking, asks "Harold" to "call me." Although Ford was also hurt by an uncle's criminal indictment, the come-hither ad cost him votes.

Many whites who profess to be race-blind unconsciously associate dark skin with negative traits and ideas (evil, failure, dangerous), and light skin with positive ones (joy, love, peace), shows an assessment called the Implicit Association Test. When white Americans see photos flashed so quickly that they can be detected only subliminally, the amygdala, which signals "Watch out!," is significantly more active in response to black than white faces. If the photos appeared long enough to be processed consciously, however, the amygdala quieted down and the rational, thoughtful prefrontal cortex perked up. You could practically hear the cortex telling the amygdala to pipe down and stop being a racist jerk.

There is another way to quiet the amygdala's response to people it decides are not like you and therefore threatening. Reminiscent of the basketball-jersey experiment, scientists find that if volunteers are told they are on the "tigers team" or the "leopards team," the brain regroups: the amygdala gets upset when it sees a member of the other team, regardless of his skin color, but not members of its own team, again regardless of skin color. "That's why I'm optimistic that people can overcome racism," says psychologist William Cunningham of the Ohio State University, who led the tiger/leopard study. "You can build a larger 'we,' as when we assigned people to teams. If we can start recategorizing ourselves and seeing the similarities [across standard racial lines], we can mitigate or even override the original prejudice. That means racism is neither intractable nor inevitable." The trick for Obama will be to keep building that "we."