Keith Tidman and Richard Sherins: Uprooting Racism in America
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin,” said legendary civil rights leader Nelson Mandela in his tireless fight against racism. “People have to learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to love,” he said.
Yet racism in America still abounds. Among black people, there remain significant disparities in opportunity, resulting from inequality of assets to voter suppression, discrimination in employment, inequality of education, food insecurity and health and prejudices of injustice.
In addition to human rights considerations, there are practical reasons for eradicating racism: legal, social, cultural, economic and moral. Our economic model needs the best educated, trained, and motivated citizens to advance America’s global competitiveness in science, technology, economy, and culture.
White supremacy has been at the heart of American racism, persisting for 400 years. Zero-sum anxieties among whites lead to fears of losing influence in policy-making, as well as worries about cultural familiarity, norms, and economic privilege.
Meanwhile, prejudice perpetuates racist behavior. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, lightning-fast reflective thinking blocks analytical thinking. Lightning-fast thinking serves as a nursery for “autopilot” racism. The reality is that people often acquire discriminatory behaviors from previous generations.
So how can America challenge racism?
One approach makes anti-racism an educational imperative. To influence behaviors, not just attitudes, it is essential to instill in children when their minds are young and malleable. The goal is to become aware of how subliminal bias affects racism and to teach analytical thinking.
A corollary of education is parenthood. The key is to set an example for children, taking advantage of ‘teachable moments’. That being said, civil rights activist WEB Du Bois counseled with conviction: “Children learn more from who you are than from what you teach. Like parents modeling anti-racist behavior.
Parents should speak favorably of Black role models, culture and contributions to society; highlight the hurtful nature of exclusion; encouraging interracial friendships; resetting norms to embrace Black values; explain the deleterious nature of racism; encourage empathy and morality; and teach how race is defined by superficialities such as skin color.
A national commitment is needed to teach civic education in schools. The key is to include a comprehensive history of America, embracing black history and the role of racism, beginning with slavery. Emphasis should be placed on people’s participation in democracy. Currently, knowledge of civics remains shallow – tinder for hyper-partisanship and mistrust.
Religious institutions should lead proactively, especially in communicating with their “constituents” about racism in America and overcoming prejudice. Religious groups, as social moralists, should present messages of inclusiveness, tolerance, equality, and the benefits of racial and ethnic commonality.
It is important to pay attention to how messages are worded to avoid unintended consequences. Words matter; they can help or hinder efforts to mitigate racism. Through social science-informed public outreach, use messaging in inventive ways to motivate people to understand what racist behavior is. Highlight the harms of racism and the remedies.
Appeals to passions are more powerful than rote logic in bringing about change. Lessons can be learned from past public service messages to influence behavior, such as quitting smoking, using seat belts and the dangers of drugs. Such programs have resisted misinformation intended to divide society.
Finally, establish a civilian National Service Corps, made up of volunteers from diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds and tasked across America with developing small-scale infrastructure, assisting with tutoring and extracurricular activities, to help black people become computer and internet literate, navigate social services, and be a source of new ideas for respectfully engaging with each other.
“Collective fear stimulates the herd instinct”, observed philosopher Bertrand Russell, “and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not considered members of the herd” – the autopilot fear of the strangers among us .