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self-study / Implicit bias and the promotion of bias-reducing strategies

May 3, 2024

Blame culture and prejudice permeate mindsets after collapse of Francis Scott Key Bridge

Mark B. Baer

Mark works as a mediator and conflict resolution consultant and teaches a course on implicit bias.

On March 26, 2024, the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed, killing six construction workers after it was struck by a cargo ship carrying approximately 4,700 containers and which weighs 95,000 tons when empty. The loss of lives, the cleanup, construction of a new bridge, and other economic damages are expected to cost billions of dollars.

Almost immediately after the tragedy occurred, our blame culture kicked into action.

The ship was operated by a Singaporean company and of the twenty-two crew members, twenty of them were Indian nationals and at least one was a Sri Lankan national. Many people blamed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in that regard for the incident.

Many people also blamed Maryland Governor Wes Moore, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, and/or Port of Baltimore Commissioner Karenthia Barber, all Black, claiming that they obtained their positions because of a prioritization of DEI over credentials and were too focused on DEI efforts, thereby causing the bridge collapse.

Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, was also blamed by people who claimed he is too focused on pronouns and DEI to properly perform his duties as Transportation Secretary.

Such allegations came from those whose politics are "right of center." You know - members of the political party long associated with "law-and-order," "family values," and "morality."

According to social science researcher, Brené Brown,

"[W]e blame because we want to hold people accountable. However, blame serves no value, and is NOT the same as accountability. We live in a blame culture -- we want to know whose fault it is and how they're going to pay. Blame is defined as the simple discharging of pain and discomfort. We do a lot of screaming and finger-pointing, but we rarely hold people accountable."

What is important regarding the above attributions of fault, among other things, is that all those blamed fall outside of the dominant (majority) culture in the United States of America, which Dr. Brown says is white, Judeo-Christian, middle-class, educated, and straight. In other words, what those blaming such people are actually saying is that all things being equal, had the ship's operators and crew members, the Port of Baltimore Commissioner, the Mayor of Baltimore, the Governor of Baltimore, and the Transportation Secretary all been cisgender straight white Christians of able body and mind, especially if they were male, the bridge would either never have been struck by the cargo ship or would not have collapsed due to the collision.

Such blame is because we want to know who is at fault and hold them accountable, is that right? To me, it is the same as blaming LGBTQ+ people when natural disasters occur, for mass shootings, etc. If members of the party that has long labeled itself "the law-and-order party" were interested in actual accountability, they would not be blaming members of historically marginalized groups and concepts intended to reduce and attempt to eliminate such marginalization, when the people and concepts they are blaming had absolutely nothing to do with the tragedy.

Let us assume though, for the sake of argument, that diverse people or DEI policies are responsible for these disasters. The only real solution would appear to be to get rid of "them" - the entire people or group of people responsible for the bridge collapse and similar tragedies - because they are the cause.

What is at issue here is not just the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, but a return to a world in which some people are silenced, closeted, segregated, and denied equal rights, while others become increasingly selfish, cruel, and full of hate. We are talking about elimination of diversity here. The point is to demonize someone, so that those who are angry can stoke their hatred and direct it at people who are different, and easiest to cast out. It's a pretext - a way of punishing those who seek to get ahead by forcing them into lower positions in the pecking order. Blaming "them" is the first step toward "ethnic cleansing," and potentially genocide.

I discussed this in my article "Elimination of Diversity to Resolve Conflicts Is Harmful," which was published in the Jan. 3, 2024, edition of the Daily Journal, and stated in part as follows:

"Genocide (including cultural genocide) is the most extreme means of 'eliminating' diversity.

"Unless diversity is completely 'eliminated' through an actual and successful genocide, the differences are merely 'erased' (defined out of existence, for example), 'hidden' (such as 'Hidden Figures' - the title of a 2016 movie about brilliant African American women who worked for NASA as human computers in the early 1960s), kept closeted (non-disclosure), or segregated and/or criminalized (some form of segregation with or without prison bars involved). Regardless, the intention or purpose underlying the effort is to 'eliminate' diversity."

This is about bias, which is defined as "an unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment." Such an "unfair personal opinion" can be in favor of or against someone or something. Negative and positive biases are opposite ends of the same rope in that those against someone or something will positively impact another person or thing, and vice versa.

I am almost 59 years old, and for a very long time, well into my 40's, I bought into the indoctrination I had received in our society that people who are not cisgender straight white Christian males of able body and mind tended to be less qualified because they likely would not have the credentials they have, had they not benefited from affirmative action. As a result, I subjected such individuals to a higher level of scrutiny. I did that even though I am both Jewish and gay, never benefited from affirmative action, and have experienced discrimination for one and/or both reasons.

One day, not all that long ago, I had an epiphany that I had been giving people the benefit of the doubt if they were cisgender straight white Christians of able body and mind, especially if they happened to be male, that I did not give to those who fell outside of the dominant culture in one or more aspects. I also realized that I was far from alone in that regard.

Since then, I have been far more likely to scrutinize the credentials of those who fall within every aspect of the dominant culture, especially if they are male, than I am of those who fall outside of it in one or more aspects. Why? Because they go through life without any of the types of "penalties" I mentioned in my article titled "How Bias Marginalizes and Penalizes the LGBT+ Community," that was published in the Mar. 1, 2024, edition of the Daily Journal. That lack of "penalty" is their "privilege" or are their "unearned rights."

What those who have blamed the cargo ship's collision and the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge are saying is that had individuals who are far less likely to face scrutiny held the various positions in question, the collision and/or bridge collapse would not have occurred. I find that very hard to believe. Yet, what such folks are saying is that we, as a society, need to increase the "penalties" we associate with falling outside of the dominant culture, particularly when males are not involved.

The way biases work, that means increasing the benefit of the doubt given to those who are cisgender straight white Christians of able body and mind, especially if they happen to be male. After I experienced a paradigm shift due to my epiphany, there is no way on Earth that giving such benefit of the doubt will ever happen again when it comes to my decision-making. You see, those who benefit from such lack of "penalties" basically enjoy affirmative action by default. That's the "privilege" or "unearned rights." I would have to undergo a lobotomy or suffer from severe dementia to unlearn this lesson.

It is not an unfair personal opinion to more closely scrutinize those who, as a birthright, have not been subjected to any such "penalties." What is unfair is to do the opposite. What is fair is to subject everyone to an equal amount of scrutiny; however, because of how "penalties" and "privileges" or "unearned rights" work, scrutinizing those who fall outside of the dominant culture in one or more aspects to the same degree as those who fall within each aspect of it is ignoring how such things play out over time and amplify. I am afraid that the more someone falls within each aspect of the majority culture, especially if they happen to be male, the more they need to be scrutinized because of the automatic affirmative action they received as a birthright.

I do want to mention that the Francis Scott Key Bridge did collapse due to bias; however, not the biases thrown around regarding that which I refer to as "civil rights categories." The bias was set forth as follows in an article by Michael Laris and Peter Hermann titled "Officials studied Baltimore bridge risks but didn't prepare for ship strike," that was published in the Mar. 29, 2024, edition of the Washington Post:

"For 47 years, Maryland inspectors and safety officials had spent many thousands of hours and millions of dollars inspecting, prodding, and protecting the 9,090-foot-long bridge, trying to keep it strong amid the onslaught of time, weather and vehicles. But state officials worried about terrorism had focused on bombs and bad guys in small boats, not an errant 95,000-gross-ton container ship, according to a former official with the Maryland Transportation Authority, the independent agency that runs the Key Bridge and the state's other tolled bridges, highways and tunnels, and a former senior state transportation official.

"'The assumption was a truck bomb or something like that,' the former senior transportation official said....

"[T]he focus wasn't on building the kind of massive and costly barriers that might have had even a chance of stopping a ship like the Singapore-flagged Dali from sending the Key Bridge crumpling into the Patapsco River, said the former senior transportation official. "It never occurred to anybody," he said.

Another word for "untested assumptions and beliefs" is biases, which are "blind spots" in judgment and decision-making.

I find this particular "blind spot" fascinating, considering the following information set forth in an article by Joyce Sohyun Lee, Ian Duncan, Jon Swaine and Steven Rich titled "We're a Dead Ship': Hundreds of Cargo Ships Lost Propulsion in U.S. Waters in Recent Years," that was published in the April 16, 2024 edition of the Washington Post:

"[H]hundreds [of] massive cargo ships lost propulsion, many near bridges and ports, according to a Washington Post analysis of Coast Guard records....

"Around Baltimore alone, ships lost propulsion nearly two dozen times in the three years before the tragedy last month, the Post review found -- including a November 2021 incident in which a 981-foot container ship lost propulsion for 15 minutes soon after it passed under the Key Bridge. In 2020, a ship the same size as the Dali lost propulsion 'in the vicinity of the Bay Bridge' near Annapolis, records show."

Considering this reality, how much were people constricting and distorting the information they were able and willing to receive, try to understand, and consider in a fair manner, such that "it never occurred to anyone" that a massive cargo ship could strike the Francis Scott Key Bridge, or any other bridge, for that matter? The more constricted and distorted the information received, accurately understood, and fairly considered, the more impaired is the thinking involved. Unchecked biases cause such constriction and distortion.

In all fairness, it bears mentioning that the Francis Scott Key Bridge is believed to have met our country's standards, as set forth by the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials, as pertains to keeping bridges from collapsing when hit by ships, which were developed and designed in the late 1960s.

Michael Laris, Dan Keating, and Júlia Ledur explained it as follows in their article titled "Baltimore bridge collapse highlights outdated safety standards, experts say," that was published in the April 18, 2024, edition of the Washington Post:

"U.S. standards for keeping bridges from collapsing when hit by ships hail from a different era.

"They rely on half-century-old West German experiments on model ships for a key mathematical formula. Their minimum specifications cite the danger of empty 195-foot barges breaking loose from their moorings and drifting into bridges, a threat that seems quaint compared with the hulking 985-foot container ship that strayed off course after an electrical failure and toppled the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore last month.

"And in 2020, international researchers warned that the standards sharply underestimate the impact of a head-on collision by a big ship into a bridge....

"The design standards take a while to update," said Mark Gaines, who oversees bridges as Washington state's design engineer. "It's unfortunate, but sometimes it takes something like this as a wake-up call to say, 'Wow, is this really the right standard?'"

In a 2020 study in the journal Marine Structures, Preben Terndrup Pedersen, a bridge strike expert and emeritus professor at the Technical University of Denmark, and his colleagues found that U.S. specifications undercount the force of a collision with a large container ship by 40 percent and require far less resistance to ship strikes than the Eurocodes design standards used in the European Union. The study found the specifications were reasonable for calculating the force from some smaller ships..." Researchers say changes are needed.

"'The whole system was calibrated to older bridges, older ports, older ships, and so on,' said Roberto Leon, a structural engineering professor at Virginia Tech. 'We have to recalibrate.'"

In "Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment," Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein state as follows:

"Many judgments involve forecasting.... Good calibration is one requirement for good forecasting.... Participants in the Good Judgment Project are incentivized to monitor the news and update their forecasts continuously. This approach mirrors what is expected of forecasters in business and government, who should also be updating their forecasts frequently on the basis of new information, despite the risk of being criticized for changing their minds. (A well-known response to this criticism, sometimes attributed to John Maynard Keynes, is, 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?')"

It seems clear that forecasts had not been updated to consider new information for over half a century. It is true that the bridge's collapse amounts to "new information," however, what about all the new information including the immense increase in size and weight of ships over all those years and how that impacted the standards? No information other than the collapse of the bridge itself caused anyone to realize that the standard set more than 50 years ago needed to be revisited?

I will end this article with the following sentence that I did not include in the excerpt I shared from Dr. Brown as it pertains to blame and accountability:

"The people who score the highest on holding people accountable score lowest on blame."

The title of this column, Balanced Scale, refers to the scale of justice, which is described on the Supreme Court's website as "symbolizing the impartial deliberation, or 'weighing' of two sides in a legal dispute." Some synonyms for "impartial" are fair, just, objective, and unbiased.


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