Acting on prejudices

Acting on prejudices

What to do to get rid of our prejudices? Basically, we need to be exposed to ‘others’ to understand their viewpoint.

Have you ever woken up in the middle of night and suddenly realised that you have made a mistake while calculating your income tax liability before going to bed? Or, a student who could not solve a problem burning a lot of midnight oil  suddenly gets the answer in a flash the first thing in the morning. All these show that our mind works like a super computer even while we are sleeping. In other words, a lot of things happen in our mind or brain in our subconscious state.

Similarly, an otherwise educated person who thinks he is free of prejudices exibit traits of such biases in actions, specially in crisis situations where he does not get the time to think sufficiently before he acts. Moreover, once his built-in prejudices cloud his judgment, he sees things in a way which is vastly different from the objective reality. He builds theories to support his in-built biases without realising that he is doing so.

A classic instance is the much publicised case of four plainclothes policemen on duty in the crime-prone area of Bronx in NY killing an innocent black youth who in panic was showing them his wallet which the policemen took to be a gun. The young man had come out of his apartment after midnight to have some fresh air and was trying hurriedly to get back into the apartment after four burly men asked him to stop. He mistook the plainclothes policemen to be muggers while the cops assumed that a black man moving around in the deserted street in the middle of night and trying to flee after being asked to stop must be a criminal.

Once that assumption is made, everything else supported the assumption. If the small black man had ventured out in the middle of night in a bad neighbourhood, he must be having a gun – otherwise how could he hope to protect himself? The young man in panic was fleeing after the policemen gave him a chase. Why should he flee instead of stopping? He must be a criminal. While running, the black man put his hand in the trouser pocket and was bringing out something black which must be a gun. 

The policemen had no cover like a car door to shield them from gunfire - so they had to act fast before they are shot. So, one policeman cries out, “he has got a gun” and starts firing. The second cop sees the first cop fire and falls backward as part of routine maneuver (to present a smaller target) and fires his gun. The first cop sees the second to fall backward and concludes that he must have been hit by a bullet from the criminal. So, the first cop keeps firing and the second cop, seeing the first firing, follows suit. Two other policemen still inside the car rush out and seeing the first two cops firing start shooting  too. The four policemen together fired forty-one bullets at the unarmed man and finds the young black man dead with his hand clutching his black wallet with no sign of any gun. 

Series of questions

A lot of questions can now be asked. If this young man was a well dressed white man or even a black man but the neighborhood was that notorious, would the police action and the sequence of events have been different? The young black man was a new immigrant from Africa who was not used to the ways of America and had difficulty in expressing himself in English. If he were fluent in English and knew that a person must not run when challenged by even plainclothes police in US, perhaps he would have behaved differently.  Given that a higher percentage of criminals belongs to a particular ethnic group creates a prejudice in the minds of others that an unknown random person from that community is highly likely to be a criminal and therefore must be treated with greater caution. 

We tend to forget that the root cause of criminal behaviour (like poor education, criminal parents) is often different from the ethnic origin of the person.  Consequently, can you really blame the policemen whose belief system may have been conditioned that way from early childhood. In a moment of rapid action the prejudices built into the subconscious may very well swamp the power of cold reasoning which the same people may have exercised if they had more time to think. Perhaps, in that case, they would have read the sign of panic in the eyes and face of that man instead of criminal intent. 

Nearer home, the recent raid by a minister and his men to unearth an alleged drug and prostitution ring in a house in Delhi frequented by Africans and the assertion that “they are different from us” may have originated from our subconscious prejudices rather than any hard evidence of criminal behaviour.

But what to do to get rid of our prejudices? Basically, we need to be exposed to ‘others’ to understand them. Usually  people with close friends from another community have less stereotyped images of people from the other community, compared to those living insulated from such people in schools, colleges or work places. A theoretical notion of equality of all human beings is not good enough – specially in a crisis situation when we shut out our reasoning power and let our prejudices lying in the subconscious take over our actions.

(The writer is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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