The insidious thing about favoritism is that it doesn’t feel icky in any way, Banaji says. We feel like a great friend when we give a buddy a foot in the door to a job interview at our workplace. We feel like good parents when we arrange a class trip for our daughter’s class to our place of work. We feel like generous people when we give our neighbors extra tickets to a sports game or a show.
In each case, however, Banaji, Greenwald and DiTomaso might argue, we strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?
Banaji tells a story in the book about a friend, Carla Kaplan, now a professor at Northeastern University. At the time, both Banaji and Kaplan were faculty members at Yale. Banaji says that Kaplan had a passion — quilting.
“You would often see her, sitting in the back of a lecture, quilting away, while she listened to a talk,” Banaji says.
In the book, Banaji writes that Kaplan once had a terrible kitchen accident.
“She was washing a big crystal bowl in her kitchen,” Banaji says. “It slipped and it cut her hand quite severely.”
The gash went from Kaplan’s palm to her wrist. She raced over to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pretty much the first thing she told the ER doctor was that she was a quilter. She was worried about her hand. The doctor reassured her and started to stitch her up. He was doing a perfectly competent job, she says.
But at this moment someone spotted Kaplan. It was a student, who was a volunteer at the hospital.
“The student saw her, recognized her, and said, ‘Professor Kaplan, what are you doing here?’ ” Banaji says.
The ER doctor froze. He looked at Kaplan. He asked the bleeding young woman if she was a Yale faculty member. Kaplan told him she was.
Everything changed in an instant. The hospital tracked down the best-known hand specialist in New England. They brought in a whole team of doctors. They operated for hours and tried to save practically every last nerve.
Banaji says she and Kaplan asked themselves later why the doctor had not called in the specialist right away. “Somehow,” Banaji says, “it must be that the doctor was not moved, did not feel compelled by the quilter story in the same way as he was compelled by a two-word phrase, ‘Yale professor.’ “
Kaplan told Banaji that she was able to go back to quilting, but that she still occasionally feels a twinge in the hand. And it made her wonder what might have happened if she hadn’t received the best treatment.
Greenwald and Banaji are not suggesting that people stop helping their friends, relatives and neighbors. Rather, they suggest that we direct some effort to people we may not naturally think to help.
After reading the story about Kaplan, for example, one relative of Greenwald’s decided to do something about it. Every year, she used to donate a certain amount of money to her alma mater. After reading Kaplan’s story, Banaji says, the woman decided to keep giving money to her alma mater, but to split the donation in half. She now gives half to her alma mater and half to the United Negro College Fund.