09/23/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Contagious Racism

Race matters. According to longitudinal studies published in the 2010 article, "Racial Disparities in Job Findings and Offered Wages," by Harvard professor Roland G. Fryer, Devah Pager, and Jorg Spenkuch racial discrimination accounts for "at least one third of the black-white wage gap" after accounting for occupational, regional, and skill differences. Race also affects other areas of society: judicial sentencing, social relationships and health care, just to name a few.

However, the mechanism by which race affects has never been fully understood. Even when accounting for other factors, race exhibits a larger effect on outcomes than can be attributed for. Consequently, the effect of race appears to be statistically less than expected, even as outcomes exhibit a bloated effect.

This can suggest that there are other factors that are tied to race that are biasing data, while this may in fact be true, another likely albeit far more provocative explanation, is that the effects of race are magnified by society itself.

In the book, Micromotives, Macrobehavior, by Nobel Memorial Prize recipient Thomas Schelling, Schelling describes a relatable occurrence -- an accident on the freeway. Predictably, traffic stalls dramatically as cars switch lanes from the now impeded roadway. In addition, the unobstructed lanes opposing traffic become stalled by about fifty percent.

There is no physical obstruction that can account for the stall in opposing lanes. People in the opposing lanes, with a view of the accident, are momentarily stopping to look. This short stop is multiplied by many people thereby causing the long stall.

This analogy is helpful when looking at the effects that racism has on society. Small acts of prejudice are mimicked by multitudes leading to dramatic effects that are not directly discernible when looking at racial biases on a singular level.

What makes such a theory more convincing, is the academic article, "The Influence of Delinquent Peers: What They Think or What They Do?" by Mark Warr and Mark Stafford. The researchers found that the behaviors of those around a person not only affects their behavior indirectly by changing their attitudes and in turn their behavior, but also has a direct effect wherein the actions of those who surround an individual directly affect a person's behavior, without regard to a change in attitudes. This behavior can be characterized as unconscious mimicry.

Since the influence is unconscious, it is often denied in retrospect. Consequently, prejudicial behavior encourages prejudicial behavior which in turn leads to a larger than expected effect; meanwhile, the motives for such behavior remain subconscious and therefore deniable.

If in fact socialization magnifies biases in behavior, then one would expect for racial biases to be under-accounted for when perceiving racism to result from a singular human source.