The Big Idea

Dr. Laura's apology and the science of racism

By Rachel Dry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Does guilt make you less racist?

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is very sorry. "I am very sorry," she said on the air Aug. 11, apologizing to her listeners for a racially heated broadcast the day before in which she, in her words, "articulated the N-word all the way out, more than one time." The radio veteran promised: "And it just won't happen again."

Well, she's probably right, for a number of reasons. Last week, she told Larry King that she will end her radio program at the end of the year. But there's another reason, too. She made a very public mistake, demonstrating, in the view of many listeners, racial insensitivity. Because of that, she's likely to work harder to avoid any prejudice or insensitivity in the future.

That's one conclusion from "The Egalitarian Brain" by New York University psychologist David Amodio, a chapter in the new book "Are We Born Racist?," a collection of psychological and sociological research on racism and the brain.

Amodio focuses on how our brains are wired to make snap judgments on race. The "basic machinery" to do this is located primarily in the subcortex. We can't ignore these judgments, Amodio writes; our brains will never be "color blind." Of course, our brains also have a neocortex that can "override our immediate, but sometimes inappropriate, reactions to people from other groups," he writes.

Amodio shows that when prejudice escapes -- despite the neocortex's best efforts -- people become more vigilant in situations in which they might again express bias.

In his research, Amodio could see that people who had expressed prejudice in some way, and were trying not to do so again, experienced heightened activity in the part of their brain associated with greater self-control. Failure to act without prejudice can trigger stronger efforts to regulate one's behavior in the future.

To explain this, he uses the same example that Schlessinger did on her fateful broadcast, when the radio host asked her caller, an African American woman, if it was "racist" to say to her "bodyguard and dear friend," a black man, that she'd prefer for him to be on her pickup basketball team.

Amodio writes: "Let's say you make a quip to a colleague that comes off as unintentionally racist: 'Hey, I'd always rather have a black guy on my basketball team!' " Afterward, you might feel guilty, and that guilt is linked to "neural processes that help you think twice before you speak in the future."

Which is good news for Schlessinger. In announcing her eventual departure from the airwaves, she said: "I'm not quitting. I feel energized, actually, stronger and freer to say the things that I believe need to be said."

Maybe the things that she believes need to be said will be a bit different now.

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