On Psychologizing Racism
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An outrageous incident rightly demands our attention as citizens. Doubly so when that outrage is grimly illustrative of a broader societal predicament. I’d ask us, not only as citizens but as neuroethicists, to consider the story of Derrick Sanderlin as one such illustrative outrage.
I take pains to emphasize: by calling this incident “grimly illustrative” of a problem, I do not mean to devalue Mr. Sanderlin’s efforts to reduce implicit bias in officers. What this outrage highlights is rather a collective political and philosophical failure. Public discourse, on the whole and especially over the past decade, has failed to set realistic expectations for what individual debiasing techniques can contribute to the cause of racial justice. This claim is neither novel nor solely mine. The contention that individual solutions are inadequate to address structural problems has emerged as a key theme from the past month’s extraordinary protest movements.
Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey argued
that “the possibilities of action” should guide
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Notice that I have presented psychologizing as a matter of framing. This is to avoid denying the obvious: of course racism is enacted through human behaviour, and human behaviour is necessarily routed through brain function. That’s true, and so is this: when we discuss complex societal phenomena, adopting total rhetorical evenhandedness about their nature and causes is functionally impossible. It’s like trying to speak without accentuating any syllable in any word. You can perhaps pull it off in an effortful, isolated demonstration. You cannot maintain it in natural, genuinely communicative speech. So it goes with the emphases we necessarily place on aspects of racism — psychological, institutional, structural, historical, et cetera. The same holds for various other -isms.
mean eliminate; Derrick Sanderlin was not wrong to believe in his work. What matters is a sense of proportionality linking our conceptual and rhetorical decisions to the potential for effective change. In other words: we ought to understand a problem like racism in ways that best empower us to dismantle it.
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To add yet one more disclaimer: I am absolutely not suggesting that we should abandon scientific efforts to understand all we can about the psychology of racism. We should generate a wealth of knowledge, and — I cannot stress this part enough — operationalize that knowledge with utmost care and wisdom.
Want to cite this post?
Nadler, R. (2020). On Psychologizing Racism. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/07/on-psychologizing-racism.html