The following text contains a reference to the N-word. The word has been censored by the author in an effort to remain culturally sensitive and respectful. Despite it’s placement and use within a direct quote from a noted civil rights activist, the author feels it is not their place to publish potentially inflammatory or inappropriate material on their platform. Respectful feedback, commentary or discussion is welcomed.
In June of 2015, President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with comedian Marc Maron on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. In the interview, President Obama said the following in response to question from Maron about the state of race relations in America:
Obama: I always tell young people in particular: ‘Do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America — unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.
What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.
Obama: Racism. We are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n*gger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.
The interview was notable for the President’s used of the N-word, and extremely candid discussion surrounding race and the legacies of the structural discrimination once embedded into the institutions that still stand today. A popular headline for articles following the interview, typically providing a discussion of the current state of systemic disenfranchisement relating to race in America, was “We are not cured of racism”. The quote is notable for it’s poignancy and succinctness. However, the quote is also notable for it’s framing: that racism and intolerance is a societal disease, a virus impeding our capacity to operate at full health, and one we can be cured from. That raises a question of it’s own: if intolerance is a disease, what does a cure look like or mean?
As with the spread of any infection, the first step is in understanding the movement and flow of the contagion within an individual. Racism can be defined as the belief in the superiority of one race over another, resulting in discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity. It is worth pausing to note that the construct of race is a societal one; race is separate from ethnicity, and is viewed by scholars as a symbolic identity used to construct meaning. This means race is not an inherently physical or biological quality, but rather a technique used to categorize individuals into groups. It also means that race is entirely developed by humans, and therefore only holds the importance as a qualifier of status that it is given. Any individual or group can be subjected to social division through arbitrary categorization, and it is only through this racialization of characteristics that our conceptions and awareness of these characteristics are given merit by society. For a greater discussion of this concept, readers are welcome to refer to past posts about race in America, or to read any of the literature on race, racism and intolerance by any number of brilliant African-American scholars and leaders.
The 2012 edition of the Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders was the first to include a chapter on identifying and assessing pathological bias, describing it as “a public health pathogen” while explaining how in some cases, potential exists for it to be considered a personality disorder or form of psychopathy. Doctors, however, are hesitant to describe racism as a disease, as it risks medicalizing a social issue and providing scientific justification for acts of terror and violence. But even if it is not viewed as a simple disease, the conditions in which it flourishes can be examined. A 2010 study, although contested, found that children with a genetic condition quelling their fear of strangers fail to stereotype based on race. This literature, and supporting studies, provided evidence of the connection between the social fear and biases of the individual and intolerant behaviors or attitudes. Psychologists have likened racism to an act of irrationality, citing it’s key drivers as fear, a societal need to belong, and the failure to disassociate negative emotions from decision-making.
Academics have long examined the role of passing down racism through generations as a familial act, one where our beliefs about the value of others is learned from our parents and teachers. Examples abound throughout history: young children would gather twigs for funeral pyres where black victims were burned alive. Young males participated in lynchings, often goaded into maiming or taunting the victim by older relatives. But even implicit teachings about status can be passed down inadvertently today. A study of children centered upon watching television correlated a self-esteem boost to white boys, who are typically seen in media in positions of power or authority. The inverse relationship was found for young black children when shown mainstream programming, where the content selected typically showed black boy as criminalized characters. This serves to not only legitimize implicit lessons of status amongst blacks, but also amongst whites who may now be subconsciously impacted by the race relationships of characters shown in the media.
As with any curable pathogen, treatments exist to address both root causes and symptoms. British psychologists in 2012 found a secondary use for Propranolol, a blood pressure medication, was that it cured implicit bias and could incur in people “a sincere belief in equality”. The study explains how this discovery is likely due to the fact that implicit racism is founded in fear, and the drug’s actions on nerve circuits that govern the heart rate and brain function serve to reduce automatic fear responses. When addressing the causes, the scientific community has long agreed that bias amounts to a learned societal behaviour, and can therefore be unlearned. The evidence that racism is situational and not permanent can be seen in education programs for youth and adults alike. Although no direct rehabilitation programs exist for racism, given that it is not recognized as a medical disorder, education programs have been found effective. Studies have correlated changes in biases and beliefs towards the LGBT community to exposure and discourse, where ideas are allowed to flow through non-confrontational discussion and empathy drives an opinion change. Allowing people to calmly and coherently explain their line of thought and create dialogue where misconceptions are challenged has been linked to instilling tolerance. Judicial rulings have been recently passed in the United States that require the perpetrators of hate crimes to read literature and interact with members of the minority communities they sought to persecute. Both strategies aim to create open engagement that allows individuals to empathize with voices and stories in an effort to develop an understanding of alternative perspectives. One limitation is that empathy is easier generated with face-to-face interaction, and the debate surrounding race is increasingly taking place on digital platforms.
Leadership is also needed; racism is a social behavior, and as long as it is recognized as a norm, it will continue to fester. Parents, institutions, community groups and prominent voices need to be clear in their messaging that intolerance is simply unfounded, and that any perpetuations of racial stereotypes serve only to illustrate an individual’s personal fear and insecurities. Without the ability to recognize the role of fear in discourse and attempt to move past it, hate will remain as a wall for those who will speak from fear to hide behind and avoid being exposed. Another key consideration is exactly what is being sought with education – correcting deeply-held beliefs with a single conversation is a bold proposition. But providing someone the tools to be more introspective may allow for tolerance of others to develop, even if that tolerance merely takes the form of being less verbally and physically violent towards minority groups. For some, that progress may not be enough to justify the necessary commitment in resources.
Society has largely moved into an understanding that racism is morally and ethically wrong, and often seeks to reject and punish those who espouse such ideas. But such rejection can be dangerous; when we renounce an individual espousing an idea, neither disappears. A desire to punish an individual for holding a hateful idea is natural, but risks further perpetuating the cycle of fear in which that individual is stuck and can validate pre-existing beliefs. Better solutions might be to focus on addressing the causes of their fears, to provide evidence that they are unfounded, and to focus on freeing the individual from their limiting biases. Exceptions must be made if people are being hurt, and often that distinction is subjective. But it remains to be seen – if racism is truly a disease, we should look to battle the infection rather than banish the infected.