On their blog, which discusses brain research, PhDs Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang talk insightfully about false beliefs and how they get deeply imbeded into the brain. Most of their examples are not about racial matters, but this is one they do discuss:
we now recall that there was a false belief about John McCain, dating to the 2000 Presidential primary campaign. He was doing well until the South Carolina primary, at which time rumors surfaced about a mixed-race child that he had allegedly fathered. Apparently, this did not play well with Southern voters. Shortly thereafter, his candidacy faltered.
A key point they are making about false beliefs is that they
often have staying power if they evoke a strong emotional reaction. [They then cite] a study suggesting that feelings of disgust make an idea memorable.
In addition, Aamodt and Wang make other important points about how false beliefs and the brain operate in an op-ed piece in the New York Times:
False beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way. The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned.
Notice the serious implications of this brain-imbeding process for the white racial frame, which is full of false beliefs, almost by definition: Lots of racist stereotypes and stereotyped images. One key reason the white racial frame has such depth and staying power in society is that most of it is heavily emotion-laden. Indeed, racialized emotions have been central to white framing from at least 1607 to the present day.
For centuries, whites have tried to rationalize with many false beliefs and notions the tension between their Christianity & sense of being good persons, and the age-old system of extreme racial oppression they have created and maintained.
Today, as in the past, the system of racial oppression requires that most whites contradict their own better moral precepts and live such a life that they must thus lie to themselves and others that they are highly moral and ethical. Intense and deep emotions have always been central to this process.