THE BLOG
12/09/2014 11:50 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

Reflections on Race, Power, and Science

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

With the current news cycle highlighting police brutality against African Americans, it is hard not to contemplate the continuing role of race in American life. Despite our progress as a nation and more broadly as a human race, we still struggle with seemingly antiquated modes of thinking that lead to unnecessary frictions between people. It is as if the impressive advances in social psychology and neuroscience have not sunk into the consciousness of the broader population.

We now have a much deeper understanding of the countless fallacies of thought, biases, and group dynamics to which all humans are prone. We now understand that socioeconomic status, culture, education, language, environment, personal experience, and differential treatment are among the most important causal factors behind the varying behavioral outcomes of different social groups. Our differences have absolutely nothing to do with skin color. Sensible people always understood this, but science has now proven it.

So why we do we continue to behave as if different gradations of pigment and varying facial structures matter? Why do we still look at each other as if we are anything other than fellow humans? Sadly, it is because race does still matter. It is those very fallacies of thought, biases, and group dynamics that, when combined with differential treatment and social power, create meaningful divisions within human society out of otherwise meaningless differences.

It is human nature to notice differences in skin tone and react to them. Studies of how young children react to race provide evidence of this. But the way in which we react is not foreordained. Different people may naturally react with curiosity, pity, fear, hatred, admiration, and so on. Our new understanding of neuroplasticity makes it clear that we can train our minds. We now have concrete evidence that our brains are malleable and can be conditioned to a certain degree throughout our lives. This means we can teach ourselves and each other not to react negatively to race. On a biological level, different skin tones can tell us about our relative abilities to absorb or repel the Sun's rays. They may also tell us something about proclivity to specific diseases or ability to process certain types of food, but even these are unclear and vary on an individual level.

The peril of race comes when we imbue it with greater meaning than it actually has, when we use it as a tool to categorize people and then assume certain characteristics based on those categories. Of course, we know scientifically that these categories are, quite frankly, stupid. They simply don't withstand any kind of meaningful analysis, and those who use them as a proxy for actually getting to know different people are guilty of intellectual laziness at best, and intolerance and bigotry at worst.

Tragically, racial groupings in America and much of the world are still given importance -- which is often referred to as the social construction of race. When this imagined meaning is paired with intolerance and asymmetrical social power between different racial groups, it leads to all of the differences that we observe between the races. But they are not caused by race. They are caused by ignorance, hatred, and differential treatment. They are caused by marginalization and abuse of power. This is why one racial group or another may exhibit higher rates of poverty, violence, or drug abuse. In the United States, African Americans as a group still lag behind the American average in many indicators because they have suffered historical injustices, tend to be treated unfairly by police, are often viewed with a higher degree of suspicion and fear by their fellow citizens, are not afforded the same opportunities, and so on.

In short, American society has been mistreating African Americans for centuries. Despite the civil-rights movement and all the advances in our scientific understanding of human behavior, we still mistreat them. Of course, they are not the only ones who are mistreated. But of any social grouping in America, they have probably suffered the greatest. And yet we still continue to treat them differently even knowing that skin color is meaningless.

It has to stop. Like right now. It makes no sense. It is the product of antiquated thinking that is not only unjust, wasteful, and damaging to society but based on deeply flawed reasoning or a complete lack of reason. Continuing to think about race as a causal factor of behavior is as foolish today as it was to believe that the Sun revolved around the Earth in late 17th-century Italy. It is a now disproven mode of thought that is slowing human progress. As soon as the differential treatment of races stops, the social frictions of race will start to disappear.

Of course, we all have unconscious biases and are susceptible to lazy thinking, so we have to catch ourselves. We have to practice empathy and recognize the biases and mental shortcuts that we use throughout the day that aren't based on actual facts or knowledge. Observing differences in skin tone is natural simply because our vision registers shades and colors, but believing that this tells us anything substantive about the person we are looking at is entirely in our own minds. Armed with this knowledge, we can all train ourselves to be better people. As a society, we should teach empathy and the basics of social psychology in our public schools; we should retrain our police to understand the tricks that our minds play on us; and we should foster social inclusion of all of our citizens. Doing so will help erase the scars of race that still plague America and will make us stronger in every way. It's not just a question of justice -- it's science.