New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer prize winner Nicholas Kristof spoke at the Charleston Music Hall on Monday morning as part of the South Carolina Community Loan Fund’s first annual Thought Leader Speaker Series. Kristof arrived in Charleston Monday morning in the hectic wake of being stranded in Nepal just several days ago and broken down on the Whitehall Bridge in New York the night of his flight to Charleston. Needless to say, he was immensely relieved to have made it here to talk to our community about the roots of inequity, racial tension and more importantly, the ways in which we can begin to address the vastness of society’s problems today.
“We raise children how we were raised,” Kristof said. Inequity begins in the earliest stages of life. Conversely, the early stages of life are also filled with the most opportunity. Children who are raised by professionals hear 30 million more words by the time they are toddlers than children who are not.
Children raised in stressful homes produce more cortisol in their brains. Cortisol is one of the hormones essential to regulating homeostasis. It regulates the body’s changes in response to stress. Due to an increased production of this hormone, these children are constantly alert, expecting a dangerous situation to arise. Instead of focusing on the “blackboard,” Kristof said, they might be thinking about the “tiger about the emerge from the doorway.”
Stress utilizes enormous mental bandwidth. To prove this point, Kristof described an experiment in which two groups of people were faced with two different situations: one group was told they have an extraordinary high car bill to pay while the other group did not face a stressful scenario. The groups were then given a choice of snack: carrots or donuts. Guess who chose the donuts? Yep – the group faced with a high car bill. This demonstrates the significant effects that stress has on a person’s ability to make beneficial, healthy lifestyle decisions.
“Self-destructive behavior,” Kristof said, “can often be real, but it can also be the result of society and of one’s upbringing.”
Personal responsibility plays a crucial role in the well-being and progression of society. People form their own narratives about responsibility, according to Kristof. Who’s fault is it that the three-year-old that never had a hearing screening cannot speak? Disadvantage comes in many forms. An interesting fact: the affluent person living in a diverse neighborhood of haves and have nots is more likely to give to charity than the affluent person living in a neighborhood consisting solely of people just like him. The former is more likely because he sees disadvantage every day. Some do not. In fact, many do not.
On the subject of race, touchy everywhere and especially in Charleston, Kristof said that, on average, white people today believe they face more discrimination than blacks do.
The problem with racial tension is not blatant racism. The problems are not coming from people that might classify themselves as racist. No; the problems are coming from people that mean well, but that possess an inherent “unconscious bias,” Kristof said. The people with the noblest of intentions are essentially the people spreading and facilitating racial inequity.
At one point in recent history, a NBA referee was more likely to call a foul on a player of the opposite race due to an unconscious bias. After this was brought to the NBA’s attention, it stopped. It turned out that referees were not the slightest bit aware that they were doing this. America in a nutshell, if you ask me, but we must constantly ask ourselves: are we acting out of an unconscious racial bias?
“We have to have these awkward conversations,” Kristof said. “We must take risks and bridge the empathy gap.” On the subject of fostering empathy, Kristof encourages us to turn to books, to reading.
“Sometimes we think the problems our society faces are too vast,” Kristof said, “and they are. But I’m a believer in drops in the bucket.”