Confirmation Bias

posted in: Race and Gender | 0

We attend to data that support (confirm) our existing beliefs (biases). The phenomenon is so common it has a name: confirmation bias.


I was aware of this process as I read Kerri Greenidge’s important new biography, Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter. For, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I have consistently objected to voices (at least three in print) who find the solution in “the work that needs to be done amongst white people in white communities across the United States.”


My understandings are informed by my experiences on the playground, as a teacher. I have learned to counsel students they can’t control what their friend does, let alone says or thinks. What they can do is tell the friend how they feel and move away if she continues to annoy–and call in the teacher when words or actions break school rules, ie., harassment. In the larger society, too, we all need to speak up, firmly but respectfully, when we feel mistreated. Same in the larger society. Working for fair enforcement of existing laws and the passage of fairer, more effective ones seems a more productive use of time and effort than simply expecting others to change their hearts and minds.


So I felt took note when reading the following passage from the introduction of the book:


Monroe Trotter challenged the lie at the heart of American arguments over racism that persist to this day: that anti-blackness is a feeling rather than a persistent, defining force in the country’s political, social, and economic life; and northern white progressives, innately less “racist” than their counterparts in the conservative South, are the moral arbiters of a more racially just future. As Trotter’s life of activism indicates, only black people can define what racial justice looks like, and they can only do this through constant agitation for the political, economic, and civil rights enshrined in the Constitution during Reconstruction, yet denied through violent resistance, anti-black policies, and general white apathy. [xvi, italics mine]


A careful reader will see that this passage isn’t a slam dunk for my position, as described above. For, another reader of Greenidge might rather find support for her belief in institutional racism. (Trotter was astute and, perhaps, ahead of his time in perceiving it.) A third might feel confirmed in his anti-racist conviction that white liberals are self-deluded and as much a part of the problem as more overt racists. A fourth might focus on Trotter’s example of radical action. (The paragraph is a slam dunk for the relevance of confirmation bias, itself.)


Greenidge’s title makes clear she sees Trotter as a radical. His contemporaries did, too, black as well as white. Readers of this space know that I have little affinity for radicals or faith in the fruits of revolution. Yet I do for Trotter. Inconsistency? Not necessarily. Nothing that Trotter said or did was either destructive or unwarranted. In Greenidge’s telling, he was relentless but also principled. He was a tribune for the “genteel poor” (Greenidge’s term) even as he habitually sported a suit and tie and preferred Mozart to ragtime. Trotter was a man of integrity.


Confirmation bias notwithstanding, I can hardly turn the following passage (near the end of the book and the tragic end of Trotter’s life) to my purposes, no matter how hard I might try. Pushing to desegregate Boston City Hospital, the “Old Mon” of Boston met with hospital trustee, Carl Dreyfus, a progressive by all accounts who nevertheless thought Trotter’s aims misguided. He blithely explained that “most white people got along well with individual colored people, but they did not get along with masses of colored people generally.” To which Greenidge speculates:


If there was a single moment in Trotter’s life that precipitated his emotional decline, perhaps it was this–a devastating confirmation that whiteness itself supported and maintained institutionalized racism, and perhaps, that only whiteness could eventually destroy it. [344]


Perhaps, too, Greenidge agrees with the woman who so exercised me last year when she said, “If racism is going to end, it’s because white people end it.” But, again, readers of this space will know I have no difficulty holding contradictions in creative opposition. For, of course, white people’s racial attitudes have to change (and Black people’s, too). The question is what are we going to do about it while we slowly do (and don’t). Trotter’s response was to ignite Negro political consciousness and unite Negro political action. He succeeded in the former; his failure in the latter slowly destroyed him from the inside out. But if William Monroe Trotter is inspirational–and he is–it is because he didn’t let white America either define him or dictate his actions.


That’s my view. But, then again, I’m biased.

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