Last week I had the opportunity to attend a talk sponsored by the Civic Unity Committee of the Mayor’s Office in Cambridge. Professor Mahzarin Banaji, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard, gave a message entitled Implicit Bias based on the findings described in her work Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, which she published with Anthony Greenwald in 2013.
Banaji began her talk by posing this question:
“Are our values inconsistent with our behavior?”
Bias, she said, is a deviation from neutrality. And when you confront your bias you are forced to ask: “Is the bias revealing something I like about myself or something shameful in me?”
Thousands of studies in psychology in recent decades have unearthed systemic differences in how we treat people. There have been resume and audit studies and studies on every subject you can imagine at this point. “We have rules about who can suffer in what way”, she suggested, as in men can go to war, women can’t get high paying jobs. In a job interview we are motivated by similarity. Day to day we discriminate as we decide who to help, more frequently helping those who are more like us.
To demonstrate her research, Banaji interrogated the audience in real time as we responded to a series of computer tests that asked us to group words in different combinations under time pressure. As rapidly as possible we needed to group morally neutral words associated with the Red Sox (Boston) or Astros (Houston) with words associated with home (kitchen) or career (briefcase). But then the tests grew in emotionally difficulty as we grouped male or female names with home or career and good (peace) or bad (war) and then in combinations with black or white race. We were convicted and convinced of her research on hidden bias as we read the computer generated response times and saw we were far from neutral regardless of the order of tests administered.
For those among the audience of a few hundred eager progressives who might have been unsettled by this new awareness of their own implicit bias, Banaji reminded them that Cambridge has historically been a “town of firsts” -- in terms of efforts for women’s suffrage, abolitionism, and gay marriage.
“Now,” she challenged, “there are new issues for which we can be first. We can grow as a city together.”
Banaji described one example of a Boston organization eliminating bias in the job interview: the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducts auditions behind a screen. She pointed out that they have the benefit of only needing to focus on one modality -- sound. The rest of us live in a world where we have to juggle a variety of inputs at any time.
She challenged us to evaluate: “How much disparity between your core values and your behavior can you tolerate?”
Then she admitted that she couldn’t tell us what to do with that disparity. “That is between you and your God,” she said. She said this was about understanding human nature, about explaining scientifically why things are the way they are.
This admission from a scientist reminded me of a passage I read earlier this year from Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional novel Flight Behavior. With breathtaking imagery Kingsolver tells the story of small town Dellarobia who stumbles upon a displaced population of monarch butterflies threatened with extinction by the cold of their new environment in southern Appalachia. The plight of these butterflies attracts the attention of many different kinds of people from all walks of life, including a scientist named Dr. Ovid Byron who acts as a potential hero for Dellarobia, who is exhausted of her life as a housewife and seeks knowledge of the outside world.
Facing the pressure of great expectations, Dellarobia is crushed by the weight of wrestling with environmental and social issues so tangled and complicated that she can’t see a clear path ahead -- for herself or for the butterflies.
When the situation looks bleak Dellarobia tells Ovid that there is a man who says he has a truck ready to drive the butterflies south to Florida. She looks to her esteemed scientist to tell her what they should do. From page 320 of HarperCollins 2012 hardcover publication:
“I am not a zookeeper,” [Ovid] said. “I’m not here to save monarchs. I’m trying to read what they are writing on our wall.”
Dellarobia felt stung. “If you’re not, who is?” ….
“That is a concern of conscience,” he said. “Not of biology. Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.”
In her work, Kingsolver pays great respect to the complexity of environmental issues and the struggle involved in reaching a consensus about how to move forward. To Kingsolver, no one is the hero. Even the scientist must admit his own shortcomings, that he is only one piece of the equation.
Likewise, Banaji, by her own admission, couldn’t tell me what to do with the new revelations I discovered about myself. That would take further personal reflection.
I also felt like I hadn’t learned anything I didn’t already know. Perhaps it was because I’d read Debby Irving’s reflective work Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race and had already examined my own biases. Our reading and book club discussion were certainly helpful, and now I wanted concrete and practical applications for how to eliminate bias in my own life.
I always want to leave a talk with a take-away message, so if I can fish for one it will be this: Banaji’s question of who do I help really stuck with me. I recalled being at Starbucks a few days before the talk. A homeless man ahead of me in line was begging for a sample of coffee. I had a moral fight with myself and decided not to offer to purchase him a coffee. I decided I would have purchased it if I hadn’t been staying in the shop to do some work. A few years ago I offered to purchase a sandwich for a homeless man who subsequently sought me out at different coffee shops to try to get food, coffee and conversation from me wherever I was. I felt like I couldn’t sit in public anymore. I wanted to preserve my right not to be bothered, so I didn’t help. On the other hand, a few weeks ago I didn’t hesitate however to purchase a coffee for the young white girl ahead of me in line who was having trouble with her phone app and forgot her wallet.
But to expand this idea of “helping” beyond the small example of buying coffee, I now ask the question: who will I reach out to? I want to pay attention to who I stop to talk to in the hallways when I pick up my kids from school, who I seek out to arrange playdates, and who I include in the other social and outreach activities in my life.
During the question and answer portion following the talk an audience member raised her hand and urged those around her to take this message back to their families and friends and consider how bias might play out in their lives. I decided I can do that too. A few nights later I had the chance to dissect the talk with my husband and my sister. And now I leave the topic here for you.
Check out Banaji’s book Blindspot and give yourself a check up.
I first learned about Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City from a neighbor who worked with Desmond at Harvard. After telling me about the book my neighbor said, “Hey, I think he goes to your church. Do you know him?”
I would have loved to say yes and enjoy a witnessed brush with fame but I had to confess that in a church of probably one thousand people I hadn’t met him or his family.
A week or two later in a subsequent conversation with the same neighbor he mused to me that he was thinking of bringing his family to church.
“I thought maybe we could try yours sometime. I mean, I figure Matt’s a good guy and you’re great, so maybe the church is okay too?”
I got so excited it took all my self-control not to shout Hallelujah right there.
“That’d be great. We’d love to have you join us.” I told him, keeping my voice even-keel, and promised to send him the service times and a bit of information about the church.
Then I dig some digging to find a connection to the Desmonds. It turned out that one of their sons was in Sunday School with my three-year-old. I got in touch with the wife through the church’s internal network and let her know that we had a mutual friend interested in coming to church. I asked her if she and her family could encourage our friends to attend and to help me in welcoming them. She eagerly agreed, and it was wonderful to run into her on a subsequent Sunday and begin to build a connection.
Of course, as life takes its twists and turns some connections freeze in their paths and end up going no farther. In this case, Matthew Desmond took up a position at Princeton and moved his family there.
But perhaps it was because of this seed planted in my heart for both my neighbor and his former colleague that I was doubly eager to finally read Evicted when I saw it displayed as the Social Justice Book Club pick for October at my local branch library. How could I resist reading something so monumental by someone whose family I had met? How could I resist attempt to revisit this connection that had been interrupted?
I met to discuss Desmond’s work with a small but hearty group of readers early in October where we dissected the trials and tragedies of the women, men and families Desmond describes in his chronicle of housing crisis in Milwaukee set mainly over the course of 2008 and 2009.
To anyone considering reading this great work, don’t be intimidated by its length. Despite details that sat on my soul with deepening sadness, I found the book readable and compelling. If you are short on time (or emotional bandwidth) consider just reading the epilogue and “about this book” sections at the back where Desmond explains his overarching sociological findings as well as how he was able to write such a personal account of several desperate and destitute families. Desmond clearly writes from a place of deep compassion for all people, and in a very satisfying way provides clear and practical solutions for how we might pick up the cause and act in our own communities to support efforts for affordable housing -- such as giving everyone the right to representation in civil cases and expanding the housing voucher program to find stable rentals in the private sector.
I felt personally convicted when I read about the specific mention of how much money homeowners save in tax breaks. Reporting on page 312 of his epilogue data collected from Alex Schwartz's Housing Policy in the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 45-47:
“Over the years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have restricted housing aid to the poor but expanded it to the affluent in the form of tax benefits for homeowners….In 2008, the year Arleen was evicted from Thirteenth Street, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion….Each year, we spend three times what a universal housing voucher program is estimated to cost (in total ) on homeowner benefits, like the mortgage-interest deduction and the capital-gains exclusion….If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.”
After reading how I might be implicated in what he calls the “exploitation of the poor”, I recalled how frequently I have bragged about my low property taxes and the residential tax exemption we receive in Cambridge. I wanted to give back in some way. I came up with one idea which I posed to a city councillor over email. I asked whether it be would possible to establish a voluntary system where residents could donate back their residential exemption to help pay for housing the poor. I asked her also to forgive me for having no head for politics or policy and thanked her for all she does for the city.
My councillor replied the next day with a description of the affordable housing options available in Cambridge. She pointed out that the evictions that take place in Cambridge do not resemble the ones described in Evicted and that residents here do have many options. She explained that:
“Almost 15% of residents live in subsidized housing either in public housing buildings, the city's inclusionary housing units, or with Section 8 vouchers. There are also some homeownership programs for qualifying first time buyers of moderate means.”
She told me that my particular idea of donating residential tax breaks for a specific cause may not be legal, and although it is possible not to apply for the residential exemption, the funds would be placed in a general tax revenue account.
In the meantime, it was good to learn that property owners “pay a 3% surcharge through the Community Preservation Act, 80% of which goes to fund affordable housing.” I was further heartened to hear her describe the consideration of a voluntary program where property owners could earn a tax abatement by agreeing to keep their rents below market.
My councillor also directed me to Desmond’s current work at The Eviction Lab in Princeton. From there I was able to learn that according to Desmond’s findings, Cambridge ranks down the list quite a ways as number 189 in terms of evictions in cities studied by his lab. Still, I found it hard to read the bottom line:
“There were 332 evictions in Cambridge in 2016. That amounts to 0.91 households evicted every day. 1.06 in 100 renter homes are evicted each year.”
So, in the end? Many people are working in my city to provide affordable housing through a variety of methods. There are ways my taxes are being used to accomplish those efforts. This problem has no easy solution, and I am glad I found out more.
What can you do in your city?
Pick up Desmond’s book. Let it convict you. Let it guide you. Then go out and starting asking questions.
Over the past few years I have watched with curiosity and jealousy as stay at home moms dropped off their youngest children at school for the first time and steadily disappeared from the playdate scene.
What’s it like on the other side? I wondered. Does it feel as awesome as it looks? Why are you crying? Do you really miss them?
Some returned to work, roles clearly defined once again. But for those who remained at home, I wondered how they used their time.
Last month I finally got to experience the transition myself. (You can take a moment to celebrate with me here.)
And people I knew well and not so well stopped me to ask what I was going to do now.
“Do you just sit on the couch all day?” a teacher at school asked, not meaning to imply that I was lazy, but still, I didn’t know how to respond. Is it okay to relax? Is it okay not to jump into a nine to five job? Am I lazy compared to the teachers who open the school doors before seven AM each morning? Does anyone else feel this tremendous pressure that comes from needing to define your time and purpose all over again? Or the guilt that comes from not contributing financially to the home budget?
What am I doing now?
I had to write it out, map it on a calendar and list it to wrap my head around this massive transition.
What’s it like? It’s like having years of pent up desires and to do lists unleashed onto uninterrupted time such that I feel intense pressure to accomplish all of my dreams, albeit self-inflicted and at times unjustified. This time is a gift. A gift. And yet, I am setting my alarm to wake up earlier than I have in recent years. With young children in the house I haven’t had to use an alarm regularly since I quit working. I have set my alarm more this past month than I have in the last seven years.
I am reminded of an old Amy Grant song where she sings,
When the weight of all my dreams
Is resting heavy on my head
And the thoughtful words of help and hope
Have all been nicely said
But I'm still hurting, wondering if I'll ever be the one
I think I am--I think I am.
What’s on that massive to-do list?
First, there is self-care.
Second, there is home-care.
Third, there is kid-care:
Lastly, there are my personal dreams and goals:
Is that it? I am sure there are things missing from this list. There is so much I want to do now, I have to check myself constantly and make sure I say no to things in order to pace myself. And at the end of the day, I need to remember how that Amy Grant song ends. It starts with her as stressed as I feel some mornings, worried I’ll sleep through the alarm because I was up late prepping worksheets or reading a novel or up in the night because someone’s ears were congested.
But of course, the song doesn’t end there. It concludes:
Then you gently re-remind me
That You've made me from the first
And the more I try to be the best
The more I get the worst.
And I realize the good in me is only there because of who
You are, who You are.
And all I ever have to be is what
You've made me
I don’t know if I’ll have time in this life to get through the to-do list. And I’m praying to be okay with that. I pray to prioritize God and to prioritize relationships. Beyond that, I pray to use the gifts God has given me and to be the person he has created me to be.
That is what happens when your children go to school. It’s rather earth-shattering in the changes it brings.
And that was just September.
God go before me because who knows what this calendar will bring.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.