How Your Brain Looks at Race

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[Barack] 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.

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