As I have mentioned many times, my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is a wonderful little community that’s persistently besieged by big city problems. My local readers regularly send emails asking what I think could be done to change things. My solutions usually ruffle somebody’s feathers. As I have said a thousand times — everybody is for change, just as long as somebody else has to do it.
An equally inquisitive constituency asks a more difficult question: Why are things the way they are? On its face, any reasonable answer might seem overly specific and applicable only to Pine Bluff, but over time I have come to recognize that a lot of our problems are widely shared and generalizable.
Attempting to answer “why,” I have approached things from a number of directions — social, economic, historical, etc. — but a recent article published in the journal, Psychological Science, gave me pause for thought. Titled “Not Just for Stereotyping Anymore: Racial Essentialism Reduces Domain-General Creativity,” Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University and her colleagues find that racial stereotyping and creative stagnation share a common mechanism: categorical thinking.
While it may present itself more obviously in the American South, our nation is in many ways defined by notions of race. It is one of the primary ways we self-identify. It strongly influences many of the cultural values and social norms that we hold. It gives us a touchstone by which we compare ourselves to others.
In my hometown, nearly everything is ground in the mill of racial context. I sometimes think if the garbage contractor changed the pickup schedule, one group or another would find a way to interpret the change as evidence of a great racial conspiracy. Accordingly, a lot of otherwise disconnected issues get used as weapons in a proxy war that is at its essence a war about race.
None of this should be taken as a denial of profound, systematic and historical injustices that were all predicated in race. Our nation has a shameful past with regard to race; and as much as I am loathe to admit it, the South was largely laggard in shifting its paradigm. Even so, the omnipresent specter of false racial commodification hangs over us like the proverbial sword of Damocles.
With this as context, Tadmor’s article made me think about those forces that retard positive change. She concludes that racial stereotypes and creativity may have a lot more in common than we think.
“Although these two concepts concern very different outcomes, they both occur when people fixate on existing category information and conventional mindsets,” Tadmor and her colleagues observe.
Tadmor’s team examined whether a causal relationship exists between racial essentialism — the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities — and creativity.
They hypothesized that, once activated, an essentialist mindset would lead to a reluctance to consider alternative perspectives, resulting in a generalized closed-mindedness. In other words, close-mindedness in one domain led to closed-mindedness in others. Hence, the ability to innovate or devise creative solutions to protracted problems is greatly reduced.
This finding, along with similar research conducted by Tadmor’s team, suggests essentialism exerts its negative effects on creativity by changing how people think, rather than what they think.
Imagine then, that you have a little town, historically filled with racial animus. A dominant white class, long-supported by systematic disenfranchisement of blacks, is supplanted by a rising black majority, fueled by a score-settling resentment. It’s small wonder an average of just under 700 people a year have left over the last decade. Who would want to swim in that swirling pool of mutual hatred and distrust?
If Tadmor and her colleagues are correct, decades of essentialism have not only driven people away, it virtually guarantees that those who are left won’t do anything about it.
As I stated at the outset — everybody wants change, just as long as somebody else has to do it. Based on this research, it seems like the only thing people here are willing to do is change their address. Until we summon the courage to reexamine our whole canon of thought, that sad drain will most likely continue.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org