The Situationist

Why Are They So Biased?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 22, 2009

Sotomayor PosterLast week Sally Lehrman published an interesting op-ed, titled “Why are people of color presumed biased, and we are not? in the Oakland Tribune.   Here are some excerpts.

* * *

On the first day of the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings, one senator after another demanded assurances the judge would not allow her background to influence her decisions on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, decried anyone “who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court.”

It’s certainly fair to demand that members of the high court set aside personal politics and prejudice in their deliberations. But it seems odd to me that a series of white men can so easily assume themselves and everyone who looks like them to be impartial — and, at the same time, conclude someone of a different background would inevitably make tainted decisions.

Unfortunately, though, it is an all-too-common instinct. In every field, it seems, people from underrepresented groups must prove themselves able to transcend their identity. “A person of color is immediately suspected of bringing bias and perspective into their decisions,” observes Luis Fraga, a political scientist at the University of Washington.

Peer reviewers search for distortion in the research of scholars of color. Editors press minority journalists to see whether they can fairly cover their own people. But those of us who are white enjoy a great privilege instead — our objectivity is presumed.We would do well to follow Sotomayor’s advice — that is, to pay attention to the lenses through which we see the world. In the oft-quoted 2001 speech at UC Berkeley, Sotomayor said that personal history can make someone wise. Again in the hearing Tuesday, Sotomayor acknowledged her own life story as a Latina can shape her reactions. But in both situations, she did not stop there. She clearly pointed to the need for judges to examine those feelings and, as she put it Tuesday, “accept that they may not be appropriate.”

* * *

But white people rarely have to think about the ways in which our cultural and social experience of skin color affects us. We are not called to do so — both our majority status and messages from institutions such as the media and medicine feed the assumption we have no special perspectives, that our truth is the “real” truth.

Mainstream news outlets commonly present white perspectives as if they were representative. . . .

Life experience matters. In fact, the whole field of cognitive and experiential psychology is based on that concept: “Almost every result we have shows that (it matters) in some way,” says Harvard University experimental psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji.

Unfortunately, white men and women often close our eyes to this fact when it comes to the impact of our own race on our own decisions. As Fraga says, with her insistence that identity shapes perception, Sotomayor rightly “requires all of us to take a deep look in the mirror.”

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To read the entire op-ed click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Stereotyping Sotomayor,” and The Situation of Judicial Activism,” “Biased? I know you are but what am I?,” The Situation of Biased Perceptions,” and I’m Objective, You’re Biased.”

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2 Responses to “Why Are They So Biased?”

  1. Alice Viilu said

    I do agree with the author. I think what judge Sotomayor was trying to convey in the hearings was the importance of awareness. Being aware of one’s life experiences and background and the possible bias that might come from it actually helps one to stop that bias from influencing the decision. Self-awareness is very important. Through knowing the imperfections we will be able to strive for the perfection.

  2. [...] http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/why-are-they-so-biased/ In every field, it seems, people from underrepresented groups must prove themselves able to transcend their identity. “A person of color is immediately suspected of bringing bias and perspective into their decisions,” observes Luis Fraga, a political scientist at the University of Washington. [...]

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