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Deconstructing ‘autopilot’ bias | COMMENTARY

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo rioters supporting President Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington. An Army reservist charged with taking part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol was known as a Nazi sympathizer who wore a Hitler mustache, coworkers told federal investigators. Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, 30, was employed as a security contractor at a Navy base when he was alleged to have breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, authorities said. In court papers filed Friday, federal prosecutors in Washington said his coworkers at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck, New Jersey, told investigators that he held white supremacist views. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo rioters supporting President Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington. An Army reservist charged with taking part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol was known as a Nazi sympathizer who wore a Hitler mustache, coworkers told federal investigators. Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, 30, was employed as a security contractor at a Navy base when he was alleged to have breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, authorities said. In court papers filed Friday, federal prosecutors in Washington said his coworkers at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck, New Jersey, told investigators that he held white supremacist views. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) (John Minchillo)

“We’re better than this,” implored the late civil rights activist and member of Congress Elijah Cummings, referring to his “fight for the future of our democracy.” But are we? Does this nice-sounding claim hold up to the litmus test of America’s behavior around taut matters of race relations? The everyday din of racist violence, etched by the insurrection at our nation’s Capitol in January and by the swelling vicious attacks against Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans, say otherwise.

How do such incidents happen in a country founded on an abundance of freedom and individual rights, a country proud to have modeled for democracy throughout the world? And where does bias enter as a catalyst for radicalism and racism?

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Systemic racism seems to have dug in and persisted, despite on-and-off-again attempts at crafting smart social and political policy designed to mitigate pernicious behaviors toward racial and ethnic minorities. Despite the best attempts to evoke our better angels, compelling logical arguments and confirmable opposing facts do little to dissuade perpetrators from acting on racist beliefs. Consider the tenaciousness of racism since our colonial era and despite the intervening Civil War.

We alarmingly witness attacks against minorities. The perpetrators — from lone wolves to militias — have been as mixed as the motives. Not uncommonly, the accelerant has been an unrelenting conviction that society has conspired to marginalize them. Many factors kindle this conviction: wealth disparity, poverty, hunger and unemployment; inadequate health care; hatred toward people of color, immigrants and Jews; and perceived contempt from society’s elites.

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We are not suggesting, of course, sidelining efforts to bring perpetrators of attacks to justice. But if the nation wishes to deflate such hatred, it is first mandatory to clearly understand the root causes of the lawlessness. Then remedies to mitigate such behavior would more likely succeed. Not often discussed is the major role of early bias in the perpetuation of racism, radicalization and violence toward others.

The understanding of core bias can come only from deconstructing the behaviors people learn from sundry sources, ranging from family norms to community standards. Psychology professor and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” states that a person’s first thinking response to an event is an ultra-rapid reflex colorfully dubbed autopilot response, which inhibits slower, more analytical thinking. Researchers report that autopilot thinking begins before age three.

The autopilot response has its benefits, including making routine tasks and some decision-making simpler, without overloading our minds with extraneous details. It is indispensable to everyday living. However, there is also a downside, including a proneness to error and an overly quick, visceral turn to anger and hate, whose toxic communal mix can spawn systemic racism. Changing autopilot behavior is difficult; it’s easily perpetuated across generations. Going against long-standing and similarly biased opinions among family, co-workers and community risks shunning. Strong biases underpin the intolerance of hyperpartisan politicians, agitation by right-wing populist groups and radicalization by charismatic false messiahs.

The deep thought necessary to undo the mindset of demonizing minorities takes work and informed guidance. Efforts to educate children, adults, police and workplace groups about exemplary behavior toward racial and ethnic minorities are vital. This includes a nationwide commitment to bolster teaching civics in schools that increases understanding of constructive participation in democracy and enhances it, a social art form that has fallen by the wayside in competing for zero-sum resources. Civic knowledge is at best shallow — the tinder for hyper-partisanship, distrust and going it alone.

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Inculcating children from an early age with strategies for critical thinking is a good start. Early initiation is when children’s minds are the most malleable and receptive, which offers the most hope to shape attitudes and outlooks in ways that can stick. This can serve as the seedbed for greater generosity, kindness and humanitarian reflexes in the face of people with different creeds and needs.

Another mechanism to achieve these ends might be a nonmilitary National Service Corps, assembling individuals from diverse racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds for one- or two-year stints. They could be tasked across communities to develop small-scale infrastructure, assist in tutoring and extracurricular school activities, inspire good will and serve as a font of new ideas for engaging with one another with compassion and respect, removing knee-jerk antagonisms.

Such strategic planning around creative, science-based educational and diversity policies will require a fundamental shift in the nation’s thinking, as we become versed in the causes of radicalization, as well as in the development of sound methods to lessen the chance of its recurrence. Long-term policy shifts that are critical to initiate now, as President Biden’s administration and the Congress consider evolving policy imperatives.

Dr. Richard Sherins (richardsherins21@gmail.com) is an endocrinologist. Keith Tidman (nestcepas.kt@gmail.com) is a writer focusing on social and political philosophy.

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