Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes, Red States

The previous post on racism resulted, as I thought it might, in some points of contention. Accordingly, I want to discuss in a little more detail what we know - or can reasonably assume - about the effects of discrimination.

Most readers, I hope, are familiar with the groundbreaking work of Jane Elliot, who since the late sixties has been giving a powerful demonstration of the psychological effects of discrimination. (If you're not familiar with her, this month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine has a long feature on her.)

Briefly described, Elliot separated her class of third-graders into kids with brown eyes and kids with blue eyes. The kids with blue eyes were given colored armbands to wear. Elliott then informed the class that people with brown eyes were scientifically known to be smarter, cleaner, and more trustworthy than people with blue eyes. She also revoked certain privileges from blue-eyed children; they weren't allowed to drink directly from the water fountain, for instance. By contrast, brown-eyed children were told they would receive longer recesses, and other forms of favoritism.

The results were dramatic:

At lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers' lounge. She described to her colleagues what she'd done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them....Back in the classroom, Elliott's experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. "You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are," one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.
Ms. Elliot has since repeated the test many times, with the same results. As she explains in a Frontline interview:
I've learned that discrimination and its effects are the same no matter where you find them. I get the same results with the exercise in Berlin or in the Netherlands that I do in the U.S. or Australia or Curacao. And what's even more distressing is the fact that I've gotten the same results using the exercise with adults in Scotland and Australia in the year 2002 that I got using the exercise with children in Riceville, Iowa, in 1968.
One of the most destructive aspects of discrimination is its effect on "effort optimism" - the belief that one's hard work will actually pay off.

Studies on effort optimism have been conducted among Anglo-Indians (AIs) in India and Australia. Researchers found that within India, members of this lower-caste group were "apathetic and disruptive" in the schoolroom, and consistently displayed lower-than-average educational and financial success. However, things were different when AIs emigrated to Australia:
AIs believed that, in Australia, there was no job ceiling to speak off. This perception contrasted with their belief that in India they would never be able to attain good jobs. One of the main indicators of caste status is that the members of the caste should believe that no matter what their educational qualifications and effort on the job, they would never be able to attain material success (Ogbu, 1978; 1991). The job ceiling and the resulting "truncated opportunity structure (Boykin, 1986: 72)" insures that there is a loss of "effort optimism (Shack, 1970; cited in Ogbu, 1991: 24)".
As a position paper by the American Psychological Association notes, "caste-like minorities" need not be obviously racially distinct:
Distinctions of caste are not always linked to perceptions of race. In some countries lower and upper caste groups differ by appearance and are assumed to be racially distinct; in others they are not. The social and educational consequences are the same in both cases. All over the world, the children of castelike minorities do less well in school than upper-caste children and drop out sooner. Where there are data, they have usually been found to have lower test scores as well.
While there's legitimate controversy over the mechanisms, varieties, and implications of educational problems among "caste-like minorities," I do think these studies remain very suggestive, and that they offer a possible explanation for, among other things, the IQ gap between blacks and whites.

That said, the allied notion of blacks as an "oppositional culture" that actively rejects or devalues education is problematic; it seems to me that there may be plenty of other issues involved, not the least of which is the social stigma attaching in most school populations, and in American culture generally, to intelligence and studiousness. It's well known that female students' performance in math and science often decreases with the onset of puberty; this is usually thought to result from a combination of low teacher expectations and socialization / self-image issues.

Of course, there's undoubtedly a simultaneous cultural bias against females excelling in the sciences, but this just goes to show that the "devaluing" of education is not restricted to a particular racial group. School resistance is, in fact, common among white children. Resolution strategies, however, may be very different for black and white children, partially because black children are more likely to be viewed, unfairly, as representatives of their culture, while white children's failures are more likely to be individualized.

It'd be understandable if personal, familial, or even cultural distrust of white institutions impeded education in some black children, but I can't help suspecting that certain observers simply force black children into a culturally oppositional pigeonhole, without considering the pressures and negative influences that virtually all schoolchildren face. By the same token, it seems to me that the "acting out" typical of intelligent students in mainstream classes could easily be interpreted as "caste-like" behavior - or even subnormal intelligence - if the child happens to be black. Even the most normal behavior can have very different implications, depending on who's displaying it and who's interpreting it.

Getting back to Ms. Elliot's "Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes" experiment, I have to say that the arbitrary separation of children into conflicting color-identified groups bears an eerie resemblance to our current fanatical reification of Red States and Blue States. Certainly, the similarities between the behavior of the "superior" children in Ms. Elliot's classes and the behavior of "Red Staters" are striking. It'd be pretty droll if GOP strategists had cribbed from Elliot's work; I don't think it's far-fetched by any means.

That's idle speculation on my part, of course, and there are other perfectly sound reasons to reject the Blue State / Red State mythology. But at this point, one can't help wondering if some amount of Bush-worship simply involves clinging to an artificial caste status conferred by "Redness," the primary ideological content of which is its opposition to "Blueness." I suppose that could help to explain why policies that require the abandonment of basic conservative principles are so frequently acclaimed on the Right; so long as these policies upset the Left, they're not only defensible, but necessary.

Speaking of conservative principles, Teddy Roosevelt delivered an incisive critique of precisely this sort of political caste theory back in 1900:
[I]f men are elected solely from any caste, or on any caste theory, the voter gradually substitutes the theory of allegiance to the caste for the theory of allegiance to the commonwealth as a whole, and instead of demanding as fundamental the qualities of probity and broad intelligence — which are the indispensable qualities in securing the welfare of the whole — as the first consideration, he demands, as a substitute, zeal in the service, or apparent service, of the class, which is quite compatible with gross corruption outside.


Eli said...

Interesting analogy to Redness and Blueness - it doesn't seem to really apply in the broader sphere; if anything, I think the correlation between Redness and achievement is an inverse one. But if we limit it to the political sphere, it fits like a glove, especially at the upper levels (i.e., Congress and the political machines as a whole), where the Republicans and Democrats are the very embodiments of arrogance and "effort apathy".

What's really chilling about this effect is how self-reinforcing it is. The unfavored group stops trying because there's no point, which of course only "proves" its inferiority, and further ratchets up the scorn.

Phila said...

I think the correlation between Redness and achievement is an inverse one.

Good point. I was thinking about people strutting around feeling proud of themselves for no reason, and being abusive to "inferiors"...but yeah, it doesn't seem to translate into achievement of any kind.

GrrlScientist said...

I hate to admit this, but I think this very thing is what has happened to me with regards to my scientific career. I have long thought I was imagining things, and gave that up. I have replaced that suspicion with worrying about what I can do to overcome this problem, without success. I now am trying to figure out how to simply stay alive and have no clear answers.


Marlene Vorreiter said...

What a good essay!I've been thinking a lot recently about what this Jane Elliott experiment has to say about ardent team fans. People seem to root for sports teams on the purely arbitrary basis of that team's regional designation. However,there may be no actual native Chicagoans on the Bears team, etc. Then people pummel each other and threaten to "kill" the opponents based on this purely arbitrary assignment of affiliation. And that in turn is only one step from choosing sides in many wars.

Anonymous said...

I heard a piece about the Brown Eyed/Blue Eyes experiment on NPR this weekend. It's from a radio piece called "11 Central Avenue." Here's the link to the piece: http://www.11centralave.org/Documents/Shows.html

Anonymous said...

Isn't it interesting that when the actions and attitudes of the "superior" group of the experiment are compared to a political party, they are compared to the republican party. The author writes from the aspect of a true far left winger. How about an objective take on the political correlation.

Anonymous said...

This brown eyes blue eyes exercise is riveting. Jane Elliott has done this exercise with very young children, young adults and adults in the workplace. All with eerily similar results.

There is a great facilitator’s package for using with adults called Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes: Linking Perceptions & Performance available from http://www.trainerstoolchest.com that helps in moving this exercise from awareness into action in the workplace.

The original version too - Eye of the Storm - has a great subtext message of the pygmalion effect and the self-fulfilling prophesy.