The Disease of Racialism

Your body is made up of trillions of cells. When those cells die, your body creates new cells to replace old and damaged ones. Sometimes, though, that isn’t what happens. Abnormal or damaged cells can grow and multiply to form tumors. Those tumors can be cancerous or not cancerous. Cancerous cells can spread to other parts of the body and create tumors in those places too. A localized problem then becomes a deadly systemic issue. Who gets cancer and who doesn’t is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. However, it has a pernicious impact on all of our lives. Even if we haven’t suffered from the disease ourselves, we likely know of a loved one who has. Cancer was the second leading cause of death in 2019 in the U.S.

If you think of the U.S. as a human body, imagine racialism as a cancer. Racialism is the belief that race determines human traits and capacities. Because the U.S. is founded on this myth of racialism — it’s in our country’s DNA — we are predisposed to develop cancerous tumors of racism. Racism is the belief that one race is superior over another race or races. If racialism is the belief system, racism is when those beliefs come to life and motivate people to oppress others. The social environment in each area of the U.S. acts as the environmental factors. When our racialism-DNA interacts with racist rhetoric, policies and culture then cancerous tumors arise. Tumors that look like white radicalization.

Like cancer, racism has deadly impacts for the lives of people assigned minority race groups. It isn’t just blatant hate crimes. On September 16, 2016, a police helicopter hovered over Terence Crutcher. Crutcher was walking towards his SUV with his hands raised in the air, and the helicopter pilot said “That looks like a bad dude too.” Crutcher was a 40 year old Black man. He was followed by Officer Betty Shelby who had her gun pointed at him, commanding him to stop. When he did not stop, she fatally shot him. Shelby is white. Crutcher was unarmed and no weapon was found in his SUV. Although Shelby was charged with manslaughter, she was acquitted of all charges. Crutcher’s twin sister, Tiffany, saw the footage of her brother walking back toward his car and explained that he was doing what their father had taught them to do when the police pulled them over: “Put your hands in the air and put your hands on the car.” However, Shelby explained that she feared for her life in that exact moment when Crutcher was doing what he was trained to do to ensure he wasn’t seen as a threat.

Shelby was conditioned to assume a Black man was a threat, even though she denied that race had anything to do with her decision making process. Researchers John Paul Wilson, Nicholas Rule, and Kurt Hugenberg asked study participants to look at images of nearly identical men’s bodies and to report which one is larger, more threatening and likely to do harm to them. “When participants believed the man in the images is [B]lack, they generally saw the man as larger, more threatening, and potentially more harmful in an altercation than a white person. And they were more likely to say use of force was justified against the [B]lack men than the white men,” reports German Lopez for Vox. Racism distorts our thinking to the point where we can look at the same situation and see something different. One person believes they are being compliant while the other fears for their life.

Strong Illness, Strong Remedy

Humans like to be around people who are similar to themselves — this is called homophily. We gravitate towards people who we feel comfortable around. That’s ok, up to a point. If homophily is combined with the belief, unconscious or not, that your group is superior to other groups, then that opens the door for supremacy and oppression. As our society moves further into the demographic shift of becoming a majority-minority nation, white communities fear that they will be treated poorly. This is where the phrase “reverse racism” comes into the story. It is the underlying fear that white people have — they will lose their privileged status in society as minority groups gain status. It is perceived as a zero sum game.

The term resulted from affirmative action policies enacted in the 1970s, explains Vann Newkrik II for The Atlantic. Those policies aimed to right the racial inequities in college admissions. It’s as if white people were in a relay race, but instead of running on foot, they drove a car along the track, picking up each of their team members along the way. The first white person tripped up all the other competitors, who were people of color. But the second, third and fourth white relay members didn’t know or chose to ignore the actions of their first teammate. The rest of the competitors were still running the track, leagues behind, when the white team sped across the finish line. Affirmative action aims to help correct the historical injustices in that set-up.

“Reverse racism” is the reaction of whites who fall into that second, third and fourth relay position. Any help or advantages given to their other competitors seems unfair and unwarranted. However, affirmative action is one example of a treatment for the societal cancer of racism, Stanley Fish explains for The Atlantic. Fish argues that “reverse racism” would only be true “if one considers the cancer of racism to be morally and medically indistinguishable from the therapy we apply to it.” Fish goes on: “ A cancer is an invasion of the body’s equilibrium, and so is chemotherapy; but we do not decline to fight the disease because the medicine we employ is also disruptive of normal functioning. Strong illness, strong remedy: the formula is as appropriate to the health of the body politic as it is to that of the body proper.”

However, white people are concerned about following the treatment plan. Newkirk II reports that in 2017, polls showed that white people were opposed to affirmative action even while white students were still more likely to get scholarships over Black, Latino and Asian students. Researchers Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson studied a group of white college students to understand how the U.S.’s shifting demographics impacted their perception of anti-white discrimination. They found that when they informed the participants that the U.S. would become a majority-minority nation, white students predicted that whites “will face increasing discrimination in the future.” The students also predicted that “discrimination against various racial minority groups will decline.”

Some of the white students who were told about the demographic shift were then comforted that despite existing in a majority-minority nation, whites would still maintain their social status. Those students “did not express significantly more conservative positions than did control participants.” If their social status wasn’t under threat, then they didn’t need to fear the rise of “the other.” But, those comforted students, even though they knew they would maintain their social status, still feared that anti-white discrimination would increase.

Even though the U.S. has enacted policies like affirmative action to treat the societal cancer of racism, we still aren’t where we want to be. We are stuck in what’s called the last mile problem. Sendhil Mullainathan gives the example of governments and industry devoting billions of dollars to creating fuel efficient technologies, but they haven’t invested in “energy behavior change in a credible, systematic, [and] testing way.” We’ve run 999 miles of the 1000 miles required to enter a fuel efficient future, but that last mile involves the human brain. We need to want to change. The presence of the technology itself isn’t enough to solve the problem.

Dilip Solman researches last mile problems and recommends that organizations: understand the literature on psychology and behavioral sciences, audit your processes to identify bottlenecks and be experimental with interventions and iterate them over time. Groups and government bodies at all levels can use that methodology to solve our last mile problem. To fully put the U.S.’s racism into remission, we need to figure out how to help people unlearn the myth of racialism. When that myth is unlearned, then leaders who rely on “othering” rhetoric will no longer resonate with people. There is no “other” when we all understand our shared humanity. If we don’t attend to the core beliefs that impact behavior change, then all of our efforts to treat the cancer of racism will forever be temporary fixes.

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