If you were a high school student in the mid-1990s, as I was, your school may have been visited by representatives of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the educational program that sought to make kids conscious of the dangers of drug consumption. Usually, their representatives were young cops who would talk to us kids (with a little stage fright at times) about how rough it was out there on the streets, dealing with drug users.
Occasionally, in addition to their testimonies (which often seemed rather scripted) they would show us allegedly educational videos. Basically, they used all the old scare tactics so typical of moral panics and collective hysterias. I vividly remember on particular video that purported to show how your brain ends up turning into a fried egg if you consume illegal substances.
I soon found out that many of my classmates approached DARE very much as any teenager would approach a horror movie: with a minor dose of fear and a far greater dose of fascination. Apart from the cops, occasionally, rehabilitated (or so we thought) drug users would come and speak to us about substances that we had never even imagined existed.
Fortunately, I never tried any illegal drugs, and, as I was growing up, some of the adults who surrounded me took that as an indication of how effective programs like DARE are. In hindsight, there were a gazillion reasons for me not to take drugs (my loving parents, my love of sports, my good neighborhood). I certainly don’t remember ever thinking, as I declined drugs, Gee, better remember what those DARE people taught us.
In fact, we now know that, for the most part, DARE was a failure. Not only was it a massive waste of time and money—inasmuch as it did not prevent kids from taking drugs—but it may have even had the counterproductive effect of actually inducing kids to consume illegal substances.
By overemphasizing the dangers of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, DARE may have sent the message that softer drugs (such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana) were fine. Psychologist Scott Lilienfeld also points out that, by making alarmist claims that drug abuse was all-pervasive, DARE may also have inadvertently sent the message that those who refuse drugs are oddballs. Ultimately, kids may take drugs as a way to try to fit in, even though drug abuse is not a majority practice.
And perhaps another factor was at play. DARE aroused young people’s curiosity and, by the time they were adolescents, they wanted to try the drugs they’d heard about for themselves. I’ve met kids who became interested in trying particular drugs precisely because of what they learned at DARE workshops. Even DARE’s logo seemed counterproductive. Its striking graffiti-like red letters gave it a semblance of street art, a genre often associated with drug consumption.
Drug abuse is a real problem, and something must be done about it. But DARE’s alarmist approach backfired. Excessive talk of the problem actually made the problem worse.
More than two decades later, I have begun to encounter a similar situation, except that, these days, the panic is no longer about drug consumption, but about racism. Like drug consumption, racism is a very real problem. But, unfortunately, we have not learned our lesson. By becoming obsessed with it, we are actually making it worse.
Consider the so-called diversity training craze that has been going on for some time, especially after this notorious Starbucks incident. Diversity training is similar to DARE in that massive resources are being funneled into it. Yet, although the jury is still out, I predict that diversity training will fail for the same reasons that DARE failed.
The whole purpose of diversity training is to make you aware of your own racial bias and encourage you to embrace ethnic differences positively and work with them. This is supposed to make you less racist. Well, it usually doesn’t.
To begin with, in most diversity training programs, the alleged racial bias of participants is measured using the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in which subjects are asked to associate first black faces and then white faces with positive words. In the first round of the test, subjects are instructed to press a particular key if a positive word like joy or beautiful appears on the screen of a computer, and then press the same key if a white face appears; they are likewise asked to press another key if a negative word like sadness or ugly appears, and then press that same key if a black face appears. Then, in another round, subjects are asked to press that key if black faces and positive words appear, or white faces and negative words. Basically, the test tries to measure how quickly subjects are able to associate white with good (or black with bad), and black with good (or white with bad). If there is a reaction time difference between the two rounds, that suggests an implicit bias in the subject, given that, unconsciously, subjects may have more difficulty associating a particular race with good things. The test has been applied to a huge number of subjects, and the results purport to show that the overwhelming majority are quicker to associate white faces with good things.
But this test is deeply problematic. It lacks what psychologists call reliability. A psychological test is reliable only when it presents consistent results for the same subjects. That is not the case with the IAT. You may take it in the morning and its results may indicate that you are a racist, and then take it again in the afternoon and the results may indicate that you are not a racist. Likewise, the test lacks what psychologists call validity. A psychological test is valid if it is able to predict behavior on the basis of what it purports to measure. As it turns out, the IAT has no power to predict who is more likely to behave in racist ways.
So diversity training begins with a crystal ball-like procedure, which enables the trainers to accuse you of being a racist, and you are supposed to accept this verdict, confess to your wickedness and repent. This cannot lead to anything positive. In fact, we now know that, after attending diversity training sessions, people often become more prejudiced than before. After studying a large number of cases, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev have concluded that diversity training does not increase the proportion of minorities in companies, and, in fact, may decrease it.
Ironically, the same people who oppose IQ tests often wholeheartedly embrace the Implicit Association Test and diversity training. This is unfortunate because IQ tests—unlike the IAT—do have both reliability and validity. Yet one legitimate criticism of IQ tests is that they may be subject to what psychologists call stereotype threat: a member of a minority with a lower average IQ may score lower on the test precisely because she is behaving in the way society expects her to behave. There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here.
However, what diversity training enthusiasts fail to notice is that stereotype threat and self-fulfilling prophecy also operate in the IAT. Once you are told that you are a racist—on the basis of very slim evidence—you are more likely to become one, simply because you resent being called a racist. Diversity training sessions may easily create a hostile environment, given that everyone now suspects everyone else of being racist. This atmosphere of mistrust can result in the enhancement of prejudices, as has been demonstrated by some studies.
Most people are not particularly thrilled to attend diversity training sessions. The fact that managers make them mandatory is an indication that they will not be fun. Force a teenager to go to church and he will be one step closer to becoming an atheist. These diversity training sessions end up having an uncanny totalitarian aspect that, in many participants’ minds, ultimately resembles forced reeducation camps. Once the session is finished, participants often end up resenting the minorities they were supposed to feel closer to because they feel that the whole affair has been an attempt at thought control.
Many kids who never thought about taking drugs probably began consuming substances only after some police officer from the DARE program attempted to show them how dangerous they were—usually by playing creepy (but, to a teenage mind, fascinating) videos. Likewise, many middle-class white folks had probably never taken much notice of their co-workers’ skin color, until some arrogant holier-than-thou course facilitator pontificated obsessively about it. Now—consciously or not—skin color will become a much greater factor in their interactions with those coworkers, and the outcome of this is not likely to be positive.
Both DARE and diversity training are attempts to tackle a real problem that requires meaningful solutions. But we should not turn into hammers and see everything as a nail. Alarmist obsessions with particular problems may simply make those problems worse. More creative and less judgmental forms of countering racism must be found. Otherwise, diversity training are likely to prove as counterproductive as DARE.