A Failure of Moral Imagination

Thousands of Americans have been shocked over the past few days as they watched a video of a white woman near Torrance, California as she targeted a racist rant at a young woman of Filipino ancestry:

Get the f*** out of this world, get the f*** out of this state and go back to whatever f****** Asian country you belong in. … You’re going to get your a** kicked by my family. This is not your place! This is not your home! We do not want you here.

We all know things like this are happening in our country, but often they do not become “real” enough to us to prompt a reaction unless we see them with our own eyes. The video of George Floyd being murdered didn’t show us anything we didn’t already know was happening on a too-frequent basis, but the image had an impact that sparked hundreds of thousands into action. Our video on the notion of the Tangible & the Abstract helps explain how videos can prompt people to action by making the vague notions of cruelty and injustice more concrete and impactful in people’s minds.

Hopefully, the Torrance video will spur positive reaction for change, because even though so many people have been sheltering in place, there has still been a surge in reports of anti-Asian acts of discrimination and harassment, many targeting women and children. In a recent survey, more than a third of the people surveyed said they had seen someone blame Asian people for the pandemic. Such racist discrimination has been seen around the world and has included threats, verbal abuse, bullying, and beatings.

The senselessness and stupidity behind such racist acts seem obvious. Except for Native Americans and African-Americans, we or our ancestors all came to the U.S. voluntarily from other countries which have done bad things (e.g., Germany and Japan initiating World War II) or had bad things originate there (e.g., the “Spanish flu” of 1918 may have originated in France or China or India….or even the U.S.—its origins are disputed). Often, those who have been harassed are not of Chinese ancestry but are instead Korean or Filipino, so why blame the virus on them when they are not even from the supposed country of the virus’s origin? Chinese Americans whose ancestors have been in America for eight generations have been harassed. How exactly is the pandemic their fault? Even if someone moved to the U.S. from China in January of 2020, it is extremely unlikely that they personally had anything in the world to do with spreading the virus. This is the irrationality of racism in this instance and of racism in general.

That Asian-Americans, like black Americans, are relatively easily identified by their appearance means that where no matter how long their ancestors have been in the U.S., no matter how well integrated they are into our society, no matter how much they have contributed to our well-being, they always remain vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous bigotry. The irony of watching the evening news on television and seeing so many Asian-American and African-American doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and other medical professionals involved in the fight against COVID-19 is not lost on most people, we hope.

Human beings are complex. We have evolved to feel empathy for those in our in-group, yet to draw lines between our in-group and our out-group (toward whom we tend to feel much less empathy, if any at all), on the flimsiest of grounds, including (studies show) what color shirt we happen to be wearing. How can we minimize these biases?

Again, we would urge you to educate yourself, including by watching our videos on implicit bias and on the in-group/out-group bias, two psychological phenomena that play a significant role in racism.

As these videos point out, implicit bias is difficult to erase. Part of the reason is that unbeknownst to most of us, we judge members of our in-group and members of our out-groups with different parts of our brain. This often leads us to unconsciously condemn out-group members for doing exactly the same thing that we give in-group members a pass for.

Howard Ross argues that we do better if we recognize that bias is a normal part of the human experience, but work to identify, monitor, and change our biases by developing the capacity for self-observation. He quotes psychologist Rollo May who said that “human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response, and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based on this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.”

In other words, implicit bias is intuitive and nearly automatic. It is part of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s “system one” response to stimuli. But we can exercise moral imagination and invoke our brain’s “system two” to override our intuitive responses and replace them with more thoughtful judgments and actions.

Recently, in a Sports Illustrated article former NBA star Jeremy Lin called out anti-Asian discrimination, but also pointed to a hopeful path for the future:

“I mean, it’s bad,” Lin says flatly. “I’d go to the grocery store, I’d have a mask on, and I’d see the way people would look at me. Everyone knows somebody’s who’s been targeted. It’s everywhere.  The truth is, Asians and Asian Americans, we’re going through a tough time right now. We’re not the first minority to go through it, and we won’t be the last. But if we can promote unity and solidarity, if we can stand up for ourselves, then we have a chance to stand up for other minority groups as well. To me, that’s the endgame.”

 

 

Sources

John M. Barry, The Site of Origin of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Its Public Health Implications, Journal of Translational Medicine 2:3 (2004).

Helier Cheung et al., Coronavirus: What Attacks on Asians Reveal about American Identity, BBC News, May 27, 2020, at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52714804.

Human Rights Watch, Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide, May 12, 2020, at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide.

Tracy Jan, Asian American Doctors and Nurses Are Fighting Discrimination and the Coronavirus, Washington Post, May 19, 2020.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011).

Bruce Y. Lee, Over 1700 Reports of Coronavirus-Related Discrimination Against Asian Americans Since March 19, Forbes, May 26, 2020.

Rollo May, The Courage to Create (1975).

Alexandra Meeks, “A Woman is Captured on Video Harassing a Filipino American Woman Exercising in a Park,” CNN, June 12, 2020, at https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/12/us/torrance-woman-park-video/index.html.

Minnesota Public Radio, How to Be an Ally for Asian Americans Facing Racism Amid Covid-19, May 19, 2020, at https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/05/19/spotlight-on-asian-discrimination-covid19.

Kristine Phillips, ‘We Just Want to Be Safe’” Hate Crimes, Harassment of Asian Americans Rise Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, USA Today, May 21, 2020.

Alex Prewitt, Linsanity, Redux, Sports Illustrated, June 2020.

Howard Ross, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (2014).

Li Zhouli, How the Coronavirus is Surfacing America’s Deep-Seated Anti-Asian Biases, Vox, April 21, 2020.

 

 

Relevant Videos

Implicit bias:   https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias.

In-group/Out-group: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group.

Moral Imagination:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-imagination.

Tangible & Abstract: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/tangible-abstract.

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