The Reid Comments: The Double-Edged Sword of Racial Insensitivity

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We live at a time when racial insensitivity is intolerable--or is this really true? Is it racial insensitivity or the expression of racial insensitivity that is intolerable to society at large? Frankly, I find the bullying of racist people to be counterproductive, and filled with a complexity that threatens to retard our progress on this issue. In this column, I will briefly visit some of the science behind racism and show how paradoxical much of this is.

Firstly, expressed racism has little to do with implicit racism. By measuring explicit racism (where people say that they are or are not racist) and implicit racism (that taps into unconscious racism), many studies have shown that the two do not necessarily correlate. Furthermore, when brain-imaging researchers have tried to understand the neural underpinnings of racism, their findings have been interesting.

A part of the brain that registers emotions (including fear, anger and anxiety) is the amygdala. Studies have shown that implicit but not explicit racism correlates with amygdala activation. That is, the more implicitly racist you are, the more the amygdala will activate. Explicit racism bears no such correlation. Here, the first aspect of the double-edged sword starts to reveal itself: The brain does not reveal its workings in expressed racist comments unless the racism is of the unconscious variety. What we can tell from what a person says is actually quite limited. The good news though, is that when people are educated about their racism, they (and their brains) can make a change.

Then there is the dubious statement that many people mock: "I'm not racist. Some of my best friends are Black." Preliminary research has shown that this may in fact be true. People who have more Black friends are in fact less racist. The thought here is that part of racism is in fact about ignorance and anxiety about an unknown group of people. By having friends of another race, this ignorance and anxiety is alleviated.

Perhaps a more controversial study is one that took two groups of White people - one of which was implicitly racist and the other of whom was not. Black participants then commented on the group they preferred. The study showed that Blacks preferred the implicitly racist group. So how do we explain this? Apart from more studies to replicate this finding, we must ask: were implicitly racist Whites more engaging or trying harder to make a connection? Or was this simply a matter of self-hatred and identifying with the aggressor. Again, the double-edged sword of racial insensitivity raises its head: it appears to be preferred when it is implicit.
Bullying racist people into submission is one of many strategies, but is it really the best one out there? It certainly will not necessarily change the face of racism substantially. Racist decisions need to be distinguished from racist thoughts of we are truly going to try to dismantle this form of hatred. By perpetuating guilt, all we do is grow implicit racism and anger. When was the last time you "called" someone on something and had them thank you for the insight? It takes time for most people to contemplate their mistakes and even acknowledge them. It also takes time for them to genuinely change their ideas. While racist decisions are easier to critique, I am increasingly unsure that racist ideas can be so easily changed just by bullying.

Take for example the following findings from other studies: Whites are threatened by being accused of privilege but not of anti-Black discrimination; stress sometimes makes us say or do the exact opposite of our intentions since under stress our brains do not appear to hear "do not"; historically, when the population falls below a minimum (40), the societies vanishes sooner or later, and when the population rises above that maximum (250), the society divides; people are biased toward their own race regardless of whether they are White, Black or Asian.. There are forces beyond racism that interact with racism. It would behoove us to notice this more carefully if we are to reduce racist decisions.

By taking Reid's comments about President Obama out of context, we do ourselves an injustice--the same injustice we do when we want to "extinguish" racist comments. We might extinguish explicit racism, but what have we really done for the purpose of implicit racism? Do we sacrifice getting at the core of things when we are judgmental rather than inquiring about separatist views? Do we not foster hatred when we bully people into submission rather than educate them? I wonder if by being intolerant to racist ideas, we perpetuate racist decisions. It is one thing to be another color from a person but quite another to bully them (and by inference, anyone who is associated with them) into silence. In Reid's case, his actions speak louder than his words. But in general, I think that there is a time and place for intolerance, and we do not benefit from just declaring all racial biases "unacceptable". If we took a look at our own biases more honestly, regardless of what color we are, we might come to look at this issue more reasonably.