With the unconscionable death of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, Americans are rightfully upset. They have taken to the streets to protest the ongoing problem of police brutality in many municipalities, as well as continued racial profiling that results in African-Americans and other minorities being targeted and harassed by police.
How do we reduce racism in America? How can we find a path where fewer Americans have racist points of view, and those who do are no longer accepted as regular members of our society?
Americans are mad. They are mad that some police officers are still using unnecessary force when making an arrest. They are mad that not a single one of the four officers involved in George Floyd’s death were concerned for his health and well-being after he was heard saying, over and over again, “I can’t breathe.” They are mad for the seeming never-ending casual racism that informs too many American’s viewpoints.
Racism is a form of prejudice defined by false beliefs that one group of people have racial or ethnic traits that make their group superior or better than those who have other ethnic or racial traits. Racism is most often perpetrated by those in power against people who are not.
Privilege and racism often go hand-in-hand, because the group in power enjoys certain advantages over the oppressed group. So before the Civil War, plantation owners enjoyed all the privilege of their status and wealth due to the efforts and work of their slaves. Nowadays, privilege can be best understood as the advantages afforded those who live in middle-class neighborhoods with access to better schools, daycare, jobs, and healthcare options than those who live in impoverished neighborhoods.
America has a complicated and sad history with racism. Any American who doesn’t recognize the injustice of African-Americans for the past 400 years in this country doesn’t know their own country’s history. Brought here against their will and ripped from their families and homes in Africa, they were forced to build the foundation for the United States of America — from literal building foundations to its early cotton-based economy.
It wasn’t until the country fought a bloody civil war before the racists formally lost. It took another full century before African-Americans won their civil rights. All of these efforts were fought tooth-and-nail by a significant minority of the U.S. population. As recently as 50 years ago, racism (especially in the South) was not only tolerated, it was a part of the very fabric of some components of our society. Some would argue it is still very much the default in certain communities.
If racism is so interwoven within American society, how do we significantly reduce it or get rid of it altogether?
Slowly, with time and enormous amounts of effort, since we’re up against 400 years of racial prejudice. Despite gains by African-Americans, such racism is still promulgated within families, generation upon generation, and amplified on social media. There is no single or easy solution to racism.
Encouraging Egalitarian Thoughts
One approach that seems to help is to encourage egalitarianism — the belief that all people are equal in worth and status, and therefore we all deserve both equal rights and opportunities. Egalitarianism is at the heart of the founding of America, in the Declaration of Independence, in the phrase “that all men are created equal.” Researchers (Zárate et al., 2014) have found:
that individuals who chronically access their egalitarian standards (i.e., those who compensate after a prejudiced behavior by responding with less prejudice) are able to avoid automatically activating […] stereotypes. Therefore, it seems that some people are able and motivated to actively bring to mind their standards for prejudice-related behavior before automatic prejudiced reactions occur.
In short, by confronting personally-held prejudices and comparing those against the universal belief that all people are equal, people begin to understand that maybe the prejudice needs to be reconsidered — or even retired (Monteith & Mark, 2005). A person feels guilty for holding a prejudicial or racist belief, because it undermines their desire to be more egalitarian.
Get to Know Someone Personally
Psychologists know that intergroup contact reduces prejudice and racism. That is, when people talk to and regularly communicate with people in their outgroup (e.g., people of a different race or ethnicity), their racism and prejudice can be reduced (Allport, 1954). This could be viewed as a potential psychological benefit connected to desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s — busing white children into intercity schools and African-American children into suburban schools. By exposing each group to the other group, friendships would form and prejudice would decrease.
While the success of busing is debatable, the idea of interacting and getting to know people of a different ethnicity or race is an important way to combat racism. You don’t find many racists with friends who are different colors than they are.
It won’t guarantee a change of heart, but it’s much harder to hate a person once you understand that person as an individual, with the same hopes, dreams, and beliefs as most of us. A person learns that the color of one’s skin doesn’t really dictate anything about the person (except, too often, their lack of access to the same quality of resources and types of opportunities).
Confront it Head-On
Sometimes racism and prejudice can be confronted head-on with positive results. This works best when the person being confronted is someone with high levels of prejudice and is being confronted by someone of their own group, or in the case of racism, race (Czopp et al., 2006; Czopp & Monteith, 2003). The message should be direct and to-the-point, and done in a public (rather than private) setting. So a direct face-to-face discussion with the person will be more effective than sending a text or email.
Appealing to egalitarianism in such a confrontation may also help. A direct, nonjudgmental message might be something like, “Did you just say that? We’re now living in the 21st century. I thought that like most, don’t you believe that all people are equal? What is it about these beliefs (‘rooted in the 1700s’ — leave out if you don’t want to put too fine a point on it) that are still so compelling or important to you?” While it may be difficult to say out loud, it may start a conversation that can help reduce the other person’s prejudice.
Racism is a difficult challenge to address. It will not just disappear overnight, but it can be reduced with conscious effort on an individual’s part to do so.
It is my hope that someday, within my lifetime, we will live in a united America. Where all people can live freely, without fear of being beaten — or even dying, like George Floyd — because they’re a different color.
In memory of George Floyd. Image credit: Fibonacci Blue