Racism confounds us all

My academic background is in epidemiology and biostatistics. Briefly, epidemiology is the study of the interaction between potentially causal external factors and human health, usually at a population level. So, when someone tells you that BPA causes cancer, or that wind turbines or wi-fi signals don’t cause illness, they are speaking in terms of epidemiology. Because of the diffuse nature of many cause/effect relationships and the difficulty of measuring historical exposure, epidemiology is often looked at as a ‘soft science’, which is perhaps a fair charge – we do not deal in certainties; only probabilities.

One of the fundamental concepts that it is necessary to understand in epidemiology is the concept of ‘confounding’. Most of you are likely familiar with the maxim “correlation does not necessarily imply causation” or some permutation of that phrase. Many relationships that may seem causal are better explained by the involvement of a third variable. The classic example is coffee and lung cancer – there is a statistical relationship between frequency of coffee drinking and incidence of lung cancer. However, it would be wildly inaccurate to say that coffee causes lung cancer; what is actually happening is that many people have a cigarette with their coffee, and it is the smoking that causes the cancer. The presence of the third variable (smoking) explains the seeming relationship between the other two.

A helpful diagram

The important fact to remember here is that when we are able to ‘control for’ confounding (use statistical techniques to eliminate the effect of the confounding variable), we often see the relationship between “E” and “D” disappear entirely. This is how we are able to rule out erroneous explanations for various health problems, and separate the useful causal mechanisms from the spurious ones. Because human health (outside of infectious disease) is often incredibly complex, we often find that the strength of the statistical relationship (the technical term is ‘effect size’) diminishes as confounders are found and dealt with.

We have a strong personal motivation to see ourselves as rational people. After all, irrationality leads us to make supremely poor decisions, and that could damage our self-concept. Consequently, we often “find” rational explanations for our opinions that may in fact be based on wildly illogical or specious premises. For example, we commonly observe this relationship:

Some behaviour (for example, being assertive in workplace) results in an outcome (earning respect of superiors). We see it all the time, and have no problem explaining the relationship – people respond to effective, forceful communicators and people with a strong backbone. So when we see a very different situation, where outcome Y’ (dismissal by superiors) is the result of the same X, we have a difficult job ahead of us. How do we resolve this seeming conflict? One way to do this is to say that the relationship doesn’t exist; this is difficult, however, since we have many examples to back it up.

Well, we think, maybe what we see as X isn’t actually X. Maybe the person isn’t being assertive, so much as… I dunno, pushy. Or they are exhibiting assertiveness in a way that does not comport with expected social norms. Maybe they’re being… what’s the word…


It is common to observe identical behaviours (promiscuity, forthrightness, stupidity) result in wildly different outcomes for men than they do for women – affectionately known as the “double standard”*. We resolve the cognitive dissonance by rebranding X to something else (sluttiness, bitchiness, ditziness). Those are all inherently negative things – it’s just a weird coincidence that they’re slanted heavily against one specific gender. This coincidence, of course, becomes much less coincidental when we are mindful of confounder Z (sexism).

In the same way, we often see some behaviour X (standing on the street corner) associated with some outcome Y (nothing). So when we observe some kind of  disturbance to that natural relationship (Y’ – being stopped and searched by police), we search for rational explanations. Maybe everyone gets stopped in this neighbourhood because of a high incidence of crime. Maybe the stops are random and this particular group of people is just supremely unlucky. Or maybe they’re doing something different. Maybe they’re making some kind of telltale movements that are… what’s the word…



When we factor in our confounder Z (racism), it is far easier to understand why young First Nations or black youth are consistently harassed by police for the arch-crime of existing on public property. We always find explanations, for sure, but those are often post-hoc rationalizations of an X-Y relationship that is more fiction than fact. When the dropout rate for aboriginal students is much higher than for white students (Y’), it’s because aboriginal students are lazy (X’); not because of mistreatment by teachers (Z) or lousy home environments (Z’). When the black incarceration rate is disproportionate high (Y’), it’s because black people demonstrate less personal responsibility (Y’), not because they (we) are arrested disproportionately (Z) or face systemic discrimination (Z’).

The limitation of this confounding model is, of course, that while we can identify and measure smoking rates (or age, sex, other common confounders), it is far more difficult to ‘measure’ racism per se. There is no Geiger counter for racism (although if we could invent one that would DRAMATICALLY change our society – particularly Fox News). It can only be observed indirectly, by eliminating the effects of other variables – and even then it is bundled in with any number of other unmeasurable forces. We may strongly suspect it’s there, but positive detection is extremely elusive.

The good news, however, is that while we cannot pin down the exact effect size of racism, we can still know it is there. Being aware of the possibility of a confounding effect (whether that be racism, sexism, homophobia, or any  other prejudice) when examining our own behaviour can have the effect of making us question our explanations for any number of X-Y relationships. While we cannot completely eliminate the effect that our confounding prejudices have on our worldview, we can definitely be vigilant about what role we let them play.

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* it is in no way my intention to imply that the double-standard only affects women. Men are commonly considered inferior parents, potential rapists, and id-driven nincompoops. The knife cuts both ways. That being said, the most common way of insulting a man is to imply that he is effeminate in some way – that there’s something inherently negative about femininity. The burden of sexism is shared, but not equally.


  1. says

    I had a wonderful example of this on our way back during the last holiday. We were taking a break at a rest area on the French motorway when I noticed that police was conducting an extensive search of a BMW driven by three relatively young black men. The search ended with nothing and noone else was searched.
    When I mentioned this to my husband, he automatically came up with a dozen plausible reasons why those people were searched and not us nor anybody else. The idea that people would be searched for no other reason than being young, black and in posession of an expensive car could not be true, they must have done something bad, or there must be a statistical reason…

    Psst, the “potential rapist” (a woman can ruin a good man’s life by accusing him of rape, feminists claim that every man is a potntial rapist and such) is often a strawman brought up by MRAs, I’d be carefull using the term without further qualification.

  2. says

    The law against DWB (driving while black) is a pretty commonly-enforced one. And yes, there are always a million reasons why it’s ‘something else’.

    I am going to go into more detail about the potential rapist thing later today.

  3. ischemgeek says

    Really good read. Speaking of confounders: even in “hard” sciences like chemistry, you can run into that: There’s more than a few cases where I’ve read papers that conclude that Compound X was made because it does Y, ignoring the fact that Z is also in the system and would also do Y (and of course conveniently ommitting any characterization or experiments that would confirm for certain whether X was made, thus making me have to waste time duplicating the procedure and prove that X is not actually made and therefore I just wasted three weeks and have to go back to square one. Again.).

  4. ischemgeek says

    ^ Another case: I was travelling with a friend as we went through US Customs (after 9/11, before they descended to as crazy as they are now). In a huge line, my friend (who has a dark complexion and speaks with an accent not commonly heard in North America) is pulled out for extra questioning and searching.

    I was carrying martial arts weapons and despite being nervous from prior bad experiences with airport security (I was threatened with a strip search by middle-aged men in rather crude terms for complaining that my obviously swollen, sprained knee would be hurt by going through a metal detector when I was 16) and was waved through with just a cursory look over my gear and a “what event are you going to?” He didn’t have any equipment, but he gets hauled out and given the ninth degree.

    I would think that nervous person-who-looks-young-enough-to-be-a-minor-and-is-travelling-with-weapons (it was three years ago, and at 24, I still have a hard time not being accused of holding a fake ID at the liquor store – I usually have to bring out my SIN and health card to prove that I am who I say I am, and yes, I am 24) would arouse more suspicion than a bored brown guy, but apparently not.

  5. Everett Attebury says

    A few years ago, we had a May Day march and street party in Sarasota, FL to protest the war in Iraq. Winding through downtown Sarasota, at one point we all crossed the street against the “no walk” sign. An off duty police officer, pissed off because he had to wait for us all to cross, jumped out of his car, started yelling at us, and then grabbed the ONE black guy out of dozens of us who happened to be in the street, and arrested him. I guess he knew better than to go after the rich white kids who go to New College.

  6. carolw says

    The “Geiger counter for racism” comment piqued my curiosity. I am not a scientist, but I have read of numerous experiments with fMRIs used to measure people’s reactions to photos. If you put someone in an fMRI and showed them photos of people of their own race, then of another race, would their brains fire differently? Would hearing racist statements or jokes trigger certain reactions? I’m just playing with ideas here…

  7. says

    There is some promise in fMRI, but unless you’ve got everyone hooked up to one every time they say or do anything, you’re going to have a hard time measuring it at a population level. We can observe its existence through fMRI, but I’m skeptical about measuring an effect size. There are many experiments where race is the only variable that is changed between the experimental and control groups – I think those have some promise in terms of detecting racism, but I maintain my skepticism that any meaningful numbers can be applied to the general population. We can find tendencies, and maybe that’s enough.

  8. F says


    Even though a lot of us usually note the confounding principal as the actual cause, we are apparently too few and/or not loud enough or don’t pay attention long enough when we have the opportunity to speak out.

    I’ve been in situations similar to those described by other commenters. In one, my group was swarmed by police cars, but we turned out to be “the wrong color”. The cops were not referring to the color of the car, or they wouldn’t have bothered with us in the first place. And even assuming that they had positive descriptions of the people they were looking for, the announcement was just plain racist. “Wrong guys” or “These aren’t the suspects” would have been just fine. But no.

  9. Everett Attebury says

    Most of us just kept walking. A couple of people started arguing with the cop. It wasn’t obvious right away that he was actually going to arrest the guy. Why would he? He was doing the same thing as all of us were. Privileged thinking, I guess.

  10. keddaw says

    The fMRI is simply showing a naturally evolved in-group preference. Whether this could be mitigated by forcing kids to be exposed to multiple races at a very young age is debatable but a bit of an imposition on people. Whether it impacts people’s actual actions is much more important than their brain’s initial reaction.

    Studies have been done though where judges have been given identical cases and defendant histories and the sentences have shown a difference based on the race of the defendant. That’s kinda important. The judges might just be cranky old white men and the population at large is broader minded – but I doubt it.


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