“There are no racists in America.” That’s the tongue-in-cheek conclusion reached by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me. Americans have generally eschewed public expressions of racism even while actively perpetrating it. From separate but equal to anti-miscegenation campaigns to police brutality to vote suppression, those involved have seldom owned up to any racist intent. We have lots of black friends. Our bodies lack racist bones.
Yet by some alchemy, a society that imagines itself devoid of racists continues to produce consistently discriminatory outcomes. Having a white-sounding name is worth as much on a resume as an additional eight years of work experience. For racial minorities rates of employment, wealth generation, and education continue to lag. Police encounters remain remarkably and unnecessarily dangerous for black and Hispanic Americans.
Our aversion to racism makes sense. A culture premised on freedom and markets demands that individuals be evaluated on their individual merits. One need not care about morality or justice to be troubled by the practical implications of racism. Bigotry skews market outcomes in ways that impose unnecessary costs on everyone. So why has it been so difficult for Americans to shed a legacy of bigotry and violence based on race?
There may be answers in the way our brains work. Understanding how we process reality may help us recognize and weaken the machinery that keeps institutional racism in place. It may also call into question some the tactics that have informed social justice movements for decades. Evolving beyond a racist heritage may require us to move in some counter-intuitive directions in the near term.
Nobel winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two different mental modes in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Most of our lives are spent in an automatic or intuitive mode he calls System 1. This intuitive mind uses mental shorthand to make rapid assessments of otherwise complex scenarios. System 1 tells us in a flash who is friendly or which food tastes good or which way to turn on a familiar route to work.
Reason and deliberate thought belong to System 2. Rationality requires concentration. It applies complex computations to difficult problems. Kahneman explains that the phrase “pay attention” typifies both the character and the mental cost of operating System 2. While intuition is nearly automatic, reasoning is effortful and expensive.
Conclusions reached by System 2 can influence System 1, but only by a process of inculcation. If you’ve ever learned to do something, whether speaking a second language or using a sophisticated game controller, you have experienced the way rational thought can train your intuition. If you’re an American who has driven in Britain, you can attest to the mental cost of consistently leveraging System 2 against System 1 to continue choosing to drive in the left lane.
Our cherished anthem, “All men are created equal” is a product of our reasoning minds. It is, as Jefferson claimed, ‘self-evident,’ but only on careful, considered reflection. Almost anyone who has evaluated the question at any length arrived as some version of Jefferson’s vision. We associate racism with ignorance or willful oppression for good reasons. On the level of System 2, racism doesn’t make a lot of sense.
While reason generally rejects race-based biases as false, unreliable, and morally compromised, those conclusions do not automatically transform our intuition. Our brains struggle to cope with aggregates. We use stereotypes to simplify this process, usually to great effect. As Kahneman explains:
“One of the basic characteristics of System 1 is that it represents categories as norms and prototypical exemplars…Some stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences, but the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct and false, are how we think of categories.”
Parallels can be found in Jung’s archetypes, mental models of reality embedded in stories and myths that shape our understanding of the world at an intuitive level. Perhaps even deeper than culture, some of these models seem to be programmed at a genetic level. Responses to certain colors or odors in food, aspects of facial recognition, and other behavioral responses seem to be entirely innate.
A lifetime of exposure to a fundamentally racist culture builds a mental shorthand that operates largely unnoticed and unquestioned. Perhaps the most troubling example comes from Jefferson himself. Having authored our founding statement of human equality he continued to own slaves. Fathering children with one of his slaves still did not shake his attachment to the institution. Reason does not always move our intuition.
It is possible to neutralize the influence of System 2. Have you ever turned down the volume on your car radio while coping with a difficult driving task? That’s System 2 kicking in, looking to consume more neural resources for concentration. We rely on rational thought to debunk falsehoods and correct intuitive errors, but that process sometimes fails. Distractions, noise, and emotions – especially fear, can close down rational processing. Kahneman observed in a study that:
“Subjects were required to hold digits in memory during a task. The disruption of System 2 had a selective effect: it made it difficult for people to ‘disbelieve’ false sentences…System 1 is gullible and biased to believe. Indeed, there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.”
It is one thing to correct a bias acquired during a moment of suggestibility. It is another thing altogether to recognize and correct a logical fallacy acquired over a lifetime of powerful cultural reinforcement. Pair those falsehoods with deep emotional attachments, particularly fear, and people will cling to a falsehood at significant personal and social cost.
For many who grew up drinking from a white’s-only fountain, President Barack Hussein Obama is a living, breathing challenge to their intuitive reality. Every time he emerges from Air Force One, System 1 tells them, loudly, that something about this situation is frighteningly wrong. When they see pictures of him vacationing in Hawaii or playing golf, they experience something like the alarm bell at a fire station.
Older Americans may be an extreme example, as Jim Crow was engineered to cultivate and reinforce a false System 1 model. However, institutions steeped in racist programming continue to shape our heads today. Look at what happened when Bomani Jones wore a t-shirt satirizing the Cleveland Indians’ logo, transforming it to “The Caucasians.” The hostility he faced was a sadly hilarious exercise in missing the point.
It is possible to use Kahneman’s System 2 reasoning to correct aspects of System 1 processing. The problem is that we find these corrections profoundly uncomfortable. System 2 processing is painful and exhausting. The more we can rely on System 1 to successfully navigate a day, the more pleasant that day was.
We correct errors in System 1 processing through doubt and questioning. We find doubt uncomfortable. Worse, doubt is also slow, reducing the pace at which we react to events unfolding around us. In other words, we pay a functional price for a consistent embrace of doubt.
Imagine going through all of your day’s activities while trying to perform three-digit multiplication problems in your head. That’s what it’s like to constantly question your System 1 assumptions. People who embrace ambiguity are often less “happy” by traditional psychological measures than those who enjoy an unconsidered existence. Those doubters are also, however, better at judging reality. As a consequence, they tend to me more successful at most (though not all) activities. Success and bliss are in some ways incompatible. Our stereotype of the grinning idiot bears a kernel of truth.
Obstacles to achieving an ever more just and meritocratic economy are embedded deep in our heads. One of the most painful examples of this challenge can be found in among police in Maryland’s Prince George’s County.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about stunning police brutality and discrimination in one of American’s most prosperous black suburbs. Under black leadership, in a solidly black community, police in Prince George’s have a troubling reputation for violence against black suspects. The problem is fairly universal. Half of the police charged in the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore were black. The Mayor, DA, and Police Commissioner were black.
Shocking treatment meted out by a black institution on black youth sounds bizarre absent an understanding of System 1 and System 2. You don’t have to be white to absorb the cultural programming of a racist system. Institutional racism is, as the phrase implies, institutional.
No one inside those institutions needs to carry a conscious, willful, rationalized animosity toward another race for that system to produce a biased outcome. Just as our biases are programmed into our intuition, they are programmed into the machinery of our institutions. Black Americans are subjected to this programming right along with their white peers. Their subtle absorption of racist notions, extending even toward a derogatory self-image, is one this systems’ most perverse and depressing outcomes.
We might reject the idea of racial discrimination at a conscious level in System 2. Meanwhile our unconsidered, embedded understandings of the world, some of which are older than we are, leave us churning out discriminatory practices whether from habit, tradition, or pure thoughtlessness. Consciously revisiting the programming that informs our intuition is inherently uncomfortable and generally unwelcome. The simple inconvenience of leveraging System 2 to interfere with System 1 is often enough to end the process. Add in the social cost of acknowledging racism in any form in any setting, and the strident, often passionate, public resistance to reform makes much more sense.
Complicating our challenge of dismantling racism is our habit of moral shaming. Open displays of racism have always been seen as ill-mannered, but across much of our history they were tolerated. Forcefully de-legitimizing public displays of racial ignorance and hostility has played a vital role in the progress we’ve made in recent decades. Tactics that were helpful in one setting may be posing problems as we advance.
More than ever before, publicly acknowledging racism in any context, even a past context, can have serious negative consequences. We insist on viewing racism in all its forms as a deliberate choice, the fruit of a morally deformed soul.
If racism can be institutionalized, if it can be the product of a culture as much as a choice, then addressing racism solely as a personal moral flaw is itself flawed. Think of the black police officer that exercises cruel and unnecessary force in responding to a suspect solely because that suspect is black. The act is wrong and socially undesirable. Is it racism?
Achieving a fundamentally more just society may confront us with a counter-intuitive next step. We may need to undo something we worked very hard for a long time to accomplish. We may need to destigmatize ‘racism’ per-se and develop a more nuanced language around the subject.
It is often said that the Inuit have a vast vocabulary to describe snow. America, a nation burdened with a long, vexing racial heritage has only one word to describe racism.
In our language a ‘racist’ may be someone who unconsciously passed over a resume with a black-sounding name. A ‘racist’ is also a guy who dragged a black man to death behind his truck. If the same terminology accurately describes Trump fans that beat up black protestors and the clueless, affluent Bernie-Bros who denigrate blacks voters’ support for Clinton, then we have a language problem. One of the things we learn from the interplay between our rational and intuitive thought processes is that language matters.
There is truth in the blanket application of the term ‘racist’ to all of these scenarios, but that truth obscures consequential ambiguities. We may have created an environment in which previously successful strategies are beginning to work against us. The stigma attached to racism had a certain utility when dealing with Klansmen in the 60’s that it loses in many cases when applied to a doctor or a police officer now. Institutional racism residing in the intuitive mind has a different meaning and impact from the violent actions of deliberate, determined bigots.
Despite our best intentions, and occasionally still our worst, American institutions and the people operating in them continue to consistently generate discriminatory outcomes. Achieving truly fair and open access for blacks and other minorities to our economy and society may call for a subtler understanding of how racism actually works. We may be making it unnecessarily difficult for people to explore and reconsider to their discriminatory biases, setting up unintended obstacles to insight.
Coping with the impact of centuries of programming requires a richer language, one capable of sincerely plumbing these depths without sanction or censure. Nothing shuts down System 2 like high emotion and noise. We need vocabulary capable of nuance, communicating wider shades of meaning. Not all racists are racist.