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Originally published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 3:05 AM

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Sometimes, to err is human

People often find it difficult to identify people of different races, writes syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.


Syndicated columnist

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I used to get blamed all the time for stuff Bob Steinback said.

To be fair, it wasn’t always blame — sometimes it was credit — and it went both ways. Sometimes, he had to explain to people that it was not he who had written a certain thing, but me.

Robert L. Steinback was, as I was and still am, a columnist for The Miami Herald and we shared a certain superficial physical similarity, both of us bearded, bald and black. That said, we really didn’t look a lot alike. For one thing, I wear glasses and Bob doesn’t. I’m also much handsomer.

We were usually more amused than offended by readers’ inability to keep us straight, though bachelor Bob once confided that it did irk him when he found himself trying to convince some skeptical woman that he was not, in fact, married with five kids.

I mention all this by way of framing a contrarian response to the brouhaha over Los Angeles TV entertainment reporter Sam Rubin and his recent interview with actor Samuel L. Jackson. TMZ called Rubin a “moron” and that seems to be the consensus. You’ve seen the video, right? If not, stop reading right now and go Google it. I’ll wait.

(waiting ... waiting ... waiting)

So, is that not the most painful thing you ever saw? Rubin, who is white, is interviewing Jackson, who is black, and asks him about his Super Bowl commercial.

Problem is, Jackson didn’t do a Super Bowl commercial, Laurence Fishburne did. They are two celebrated actors who look nothing alike, except for the fact of being black, a point Jackson proceeds to hammer like a nail. Speaking over and through Rubin’s embarrassed and repeated attempts to explain and apologize, he keeps making the same point: He, Sam Jackson (famous for “Pulp Fiction”), is not Laurence Fishburne (famous for “The Matrix”). Black folks do not all look alike!

If it were a fight, they’d have stopped it. If Rubin were a horse, they’d have shot him.

I don’t blame Jackson for being angry. He is not exactly an unknown, and no one calling himself an entertainment reporter should have made that mistake. Still, I felt sorry for Rubin. I was reminded of the time an 8-year-old black boy — me — went on a field trip to the L.A. Zoo that brought him, for the first time, into proximity with white kids.

Flocks of them, giggling and shrieking, went scampering down the lanes of the zoo and I remember watching them and worrying, with a child’s earnestness, that their moms and dads would lose track of them, be unable to tell one from another. They all looked alike to me.

It turns out this is not uncommon. People often find it difficult to identify people of different races, whether it is whites identifying blacks, blacks identifying whites or what have you. Indeed, it happens enough that psychology has a name for it: other race effect. It is the reason eyewitness identifications across racial lines are notoriously unreliable. And though you might think this an outgrowth of racial bias, researchers say it isn’t. A bigot is no more likely than anyone else to misidentify people of other races.

Which is not to say “they all look alike” is never a sign of racial bias. And here, I’m thinking of a reader who looked at side-by-side images of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and a tough-looking 32-year-old rapper called The Game and insisted they were one and the same, even though the rapper has a tattoo on his face and Martin had no visible markings. We don’t need any fancy psychological terminology to know what that was. That was just plain old bigotry.

But it isn’t always. And maybe it would not be the worst thing in the world, in our era of instant affront and zero-to-60 outrage, to allow for the possibility that occasionally, what looks like a moron is just a human being, being human.

At least, that’s my opinion. If you disagree, you know what to do.

Blame Bob Steinback.

© , The Miami Herald

Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com



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