What constitutes racism? Who is a racist? What do these words, with their explosive clout, mean today? How can we ensure these crucial signifiers do not become empty curses, indiscriminately deployed and made ambiguous enough to be misused? A clue can be found by zooming in on contemporary discussions about, for example, white guilt, virtue signaling, and implicit bias. Generally framed as sociopolitical notions, these are claims about affects, identities, and perceptions — they are, in other words, essentially psychological. To understand what kind of racism we face, and not get lost in a Babel of descriptors, we need to grasp what kind of mind undergirds it. Clarifying foundational assumptions, I believe, can help guide us forward.
But first, let’s take a step back. After the nationalist slaughters of World War I, the Belgian genocide in the Congo, and especially the Nazi Holocaust, thinkers sought to understand the forces that made for such animus toward national, racial, and religious “strangers.” Four competing theories of the mind — all themselves partial and open to critique — emerged in the 20th century to account for different forms of racism. The proposed answers from that fertile time still remain our own.
First, there was a Pavlovian form of racism. Beginning in the 1920s, American behaviorists, following John Watson, conceived of psychology in the way that the Russian understood his dogs. The “mind” — to the extent that it existed — was a passive conduit for external inputs and behavioral outputs. Watson and his followers posited that a novel stimulus like ethnic or racial difference might engender a fight or flight reaction and a conditioned reflex, regardless of whether any actual threat existed. I was young, a Caucasian woman told a researcher, when a Chinese man chased me through the woods, and I have hated and feared the Chinese ever since.
The problem with this model of bias, as research in 1928 by sociologist Emory Bogardus demonstrated, was that most bigots never had any such formative experience. Weirdly, a great many of these prejudiced people had never met a single soul from the group they detested.
A second theory emerged to make sense of this disturbing observation. After noting how nationalist propaganda prepared the path for World War I, the political journalist Walter Lippmann repurposed a term from printing. Stereotypes, he proposed in 1924, were learned, categorical ideas that drove emotions and beliefs about others. Cultures and social groups were cognitive ecosystems that offered up such stereotypes, which then provided simple, false solutions to complex social pressures. By watching D. W. Griffiths’s The Birth of a Nation, white American audiences, including those who had little contact with Blacks, went home having adopted shorthand answers for who and what Black people were, stereotypes that now operated in their community as a kind of common sense.
These two models of racial bias, behaviorist and cognitive, encouraged ameliorative hopes, and they still do. If racism was conditioned, it could be unconditioned. Fight or flight reactions could be altered by what Watson’s followers called exposure and habituation — in other words, by the social project of racial desegregation. Bring that woman together with Chinese men, have her work and play alongside them, and gradually her fight or flight reaction would diminish and then die off. Empirical data shows, in fact, that this very often is the case.
Similarly, while cognitive stereotypes may be omnipresent, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others have demonstrated, cultures create their specific content and therefore can alter them. America, as Jill Lepore shows in These Truths, is an amalgam of beliefs and conventions based on a foundational equality proposed for all, alongside a legacy of the opposite: the chained world of Masters and Slaves. By this account, Americans can’t but absorb racist stereotypes from their environment, but what they learn can be revised. Heightened awareness of implicit bias, sensitivity training, and educational and media efforts to humanize demeaned, stereotyped groups can rework these presumptions. Here too, studies show that for some, these efforts work.
But what about those who remain untouched? What kind of racism is that? What makes an individual not just prone to stereotypes and reflexive anxiety, but in some more fundamental way devoted to racism? In midcentury Europe, a third theory accounted for a deeper, intransigent kind of stranger hatred, one so necessary to the subject that it could be said to define him.
This theory came from psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud and his followers focused on antisemitism and the Nazi hatred of those referred to at times as “Asiatic” implants or “white Negroes.” Writing in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, analysts observed that these racists did not just absorb bias from without, but actively sought out scapegoats. They wanted to hate. Why?
Guilt- or shame-ridden people, some psychoanalysts argued, relieved themselves of their inner distress by “projection.” By using this defense mechanism, they avoided accusing themselves of intolerable sins and failures, and dressed up an out-group with those very attributes. Therefore, they required a degraded Other to maintain their own psychic stability. By this model, as Frantz Fanon observed in a different, colonial setting, anti-Black racism in America could be said to have a clear raison d’être: subcultures of inferiority created the need for white “supremacy.”
What to do here? Let’s linger on that question since this third kind of racism poses the most intractable problem. Firstly, to recognize this process, there are a few tell-tale signs. Unlike the everyday bigot, such committed racists have no capacity for in-between arguments or disconfirming experiences. By contrast, people who have absorbed stereotypes from their environment, but have no deeper need for these caricatures, can be challenged to rethink matters. They can be moved by the “generous Jew” or the “gentle Black man” to cast off their assumptions. For the internally driven racist however, these are merely “exceptions” that prove the rule. Secondly, hardcore racists of this sort cannot tolerate emotional ambivalence; once they are rid of their own distress, they are rigidly convinced that good and evil are white and Black. The emotional relief that follows is apparent at rallies, where participants become giddy with hatred, ecstatically liberated from their woes. Lastly, intent on preserving their inner serenity, projection-ridden racists lose their capacity for guilt. If confronted by suffering they have caused, they dig in, blame more, and remain righteous.
If confronting stereotypes and implicit bias remain our most ubiquitous task, then our most daunting challenge revolves around minds committed to this form of race hatred. What to do? Looking to analogies from individual treatment, we find that psychotherapists work to build trust, while gradually interpreting the patient’s projections, showing how at their heart they are ironic. Think of a cheating husband who rages about his wife’s flirting and suspected infidelity, but, after many interpretations, reinternalizes these accusations. Recently, I spent a weekend at an upstate New York farm, where I discovered huge signs railing against the “bullshit” of government. The proud owners were fed up with the way resources were handed out to leech-like illegals and urban minorities, so they hung their banners from a massive, new barn, built with thousands of dollars of government aid. Projection is, in the end, an elaborate form of confession.
In America, skin color has been an essentialized difference that allows the projection-driven racist to export his own shame and guilt, and feel secure that no one will notice, thanks to a 400-year-old color line. However, if we do take notice, then we may be able to address such hatred with more than just our own vitriol. The manufactured difference — “you are what I hate in me” — gradually must be returned to its sender. Racists also can be offered a less shame-ridden framework for their self-worth; historical examples include “we are all God’s children” faith, “workers of the world unite” socialism, and “all for one and one for all” patriotism. Alongside the obvious need for strict legal protections, these and other communal “therapies” may undermine the racist “solution.” Obviously however, this grave trouble requires far more tailored, effective social policies.
Finally, there is a fourth model of mind that has deeply influenced our thinking. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir launched studies in 1940s that focused on a subject’s desire to dominate and control the “Other.” Their critique was adopted by an array of disenfranchised and silenced Others, most prominently women and those living under colonial rule. However, by the late 1960s, an offshoot, associated with Michel Foucault, moved away from individual motivations to focus on institutions and systems, including language and laws that created and maintained asymmetries. Exercises of power were no longer based on individual intent. Those who moved through these social factories might not be — by Watson’s, Lippmann’s, Freud’s, or Sartre’s definitions — racist. Rather, they were pawns in a contest that had concluded long ago. Reform would come about by exposing the hidden impact of these systems. Those holding the levers of power would now have to choose whether to collude with a structure that sustains discrimination.
Today, after four years of the most divisive presidency in memory, America is riven. We’ve been brought to a crossroads thanks to decades of a shrinking middle class, a celebrity culture split between spectacular “winners” and Mitt Romney’s disparaged “47 percent takers” or Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” social media built of algorithms that urge us toward extremes, and a barrage of iPhone footage exposing brutal violence against Blacks. Some may claim our dilemma is that we are all biased (model 2); others recoil from the accusation that they somehow have allegiances with neo-Nazis and race warriors. Some insist racism and bias can be radically diminished through heightened awareness and education (models 1 and 2). Others scoff in light of the vitriol of the Trump years and demand deeper solutions for group hatred (model 3). Finally, some have insisted that our institutions create hidden values and agendas that result in structural racism (model 4); others protest that good people in these institutions deplore racism.
What if all these positions are partially right but also in part wrong, or at least insufficient given the different kinds of racism described above? What if they diagnose a fever without clearly distinguishing its varied sources or remedies? Education, exposure, and sensitivity training work for stranger fear and stereotypes, but that does not mean we can walk away from the harder problem of subcultures whose proponents may have no interest in such remedies. Reforming some American institutions, many of which have long legacies of enforcing white privilege, is indeed long overdue, but this does not mean that demonizing the individuals therein is productive or just.
The moment is too precarious in our nation’s history to get ensnared in false choices. As Americans, we can be rightly proud of our ideals of egalitarianism, toleration, and pluralism, but only if we also acknowledge how often and severely they have failed. We cannot evade the way in which the past keeps making itself present, and how symbols like Scarlett O’Hara and the Confederacy never die, but like ghouls continue to haunt our nation. Sensitivity to “the cultural surround” that supports racism is therefore an unavoidable act of citizenship, an American responsibility. The common racism thus confronted, however, is not the same kind that makes individuals and even institutions deeply in need of a denigrated Other, and thus prey to falling into the “negative of love,” as Theodor Adorno put it.
As our nation stumbles into its next battle in the seemingly never-ending war between its discriminatory and emancipatory impulses, we need clarity. The moment crystallized by George Floyd’s murder has faded, and those filled with bad faith will — indeed, have already — weaponize reformers’ terms regarding racism, systemic and otherwise, to conflate their meanings, turn them into absurdities, and thereby, wittingly or not, undermine in toto a now disfigured accusation. We don’t need to be psychiatrists to make a few basic distinctions — between racist biases, structural forms of racism, and those who more fundamentally can be said to be racists — to avoid this trap, and thereby strive toward those unrealized egalitarian truths we hold to be self-evident.
George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia was published in September of this year.