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On Psychologizing Racism

By Roland Nadler

Image Courtesy of Flickr

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. 

During a recent protest where Mr. Sanderlin was attempting to peacefully de-escalate a confrontation, a San Jose police officer opened fire on him, rupturing his groin with a bullet euphemistically termed “rubber.” New cadets on this police force had in fact received training on implicit bias from the very person — Derrick Sanderlin (who, the linked report fails to note, is Black) — now maimed by that force. 

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. 

Why am I calling this failure to the attention of The Neuroethics Blog readers? Because the public imagination sets expectations for something like implicit bias training based on the understanding of racism it operates on. And the extent to which we choose to psychologize our understanding of racism is, squarely, a neuroethics issue. (If that sounds boldly worded, well, it’s the thesis of the post!) 

When I speak of “psychologizing” racism, what I have in mind is a particular path taken in the rhetorical or framing choices that go into addressing such a phenomenon — namely, locating the important features of racism within individual humans, especially their dispositions and behaviours, as a kind of (mal)functioning of their brains. Among the leading works on this topic, Jonathan Kahn’s Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong about the Struggle for Racial Justice is a fine choice for those who wish to explore it. Psychologizing racism tends to entrench a misconceived model of its dynamics, the argument goes; this model in turn furnishes insufficiently effective solutions. (Kahn’s book has drawn criticism, albeit from an interested party, and I will not judge the merits either way here — enough for our purposes that it serves as an example of a certain perspective.) 

Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey argued 

that “the possibilities of action” should guide 

our theorizing.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Instead of seeking a mythical ‘view from nowhere,’ we should practice pragmatism in accentuating one frame over another. Because the operation of systems and institutions can enact racism even though individual actors are only faithfully carrying out facially neutral rules (no bias or animus necessary), we must take care to appropriately limit psychologizing on this issue. Limit does not

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. 

I am not aware of any durable consensus on the impact of individual-psychological interventions aimed at combating racism, and so in this short post I cannot hope to establish precisely how effective or ineffective they are. Instead I can make the following observation. Now over half a decade since individual-oriented measures like debiasing and body cameras featured heavily in the discourse stemming from Ferguson, Missouri’s historic uprising, we are still hearing an unmistakable message of exasperation from communities continually suffering under the racism these interventions were meant to alleviate. The mood has shifted. Whether the thesis advanced by Jonathan Kahn and others is ultimately persuasive or not, it is decidedly more plausible today than it was before. 

I do not see this post as an occasion to convince you that one or another suite of policy measures is, specifically, the right choice. (I will not hide that I favour drastically shrinking the social roles of policing and prison, redirecting their resources toward approaches that ameliorate the neglected social determinants of harmful behaviour.) Nor do I express any particular opinion about the track record of neuroethicists or neuroethics as a discipline in contributing to the psychologization of racism. The view from neuroscience can certainly be a hammer that makes every problem appear nail-shaped. But I am not sure if our tendency to psychologize was causally effective in shaping this discourse. 

Image Courtesy of Pixabay

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. 

I will conclude with two messages, one addressed to those doing neuroethics work, and the other addressed chiefly beyond our circles to general-public readers.  

First, to the latter: I’d urge every reader to work on being a critical consumer of true statements. “Racism lives in the brain” is both a correct statement so far as it goes and, at least in some of its applications, a relatively unhelpful one. There are many other issues where an explanation in cognitive-scientific terms really is both true and useful. In our era of widespread brain talk, cultivating some savvy about the explanatory value of neuroscience is part of the job of being an informed citizen. If you need a hand, ask a neuroethicist! 

Second, to those of us who work in this space: while we may not have made this mess, we are not excused from doing our part to unmake it. “What have I not done?” is the question to be asking. Neuroethicists are experts at identifying where it’s useful to psychologize. We know well how a brain-based understanding of social, legal, or ethical issues can produce valuable insights, even shake up entrenched ways of thinking. This pivotal moment helps illuminate why all of us in the field must also strive to be experts at identifying where it’s not the most useful approach to psychologize. Sometimes the path to the heart of a problem doesn’t run through the brain. 


Roland Nadler is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law. He previously taught courses including Law and Neuroscience at the University of Ottawa, and served as a Fellow with the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School, where he also earned his JD. Roland gratefully acknowledges the honour of being supported in his studies by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, as well as the privilege of living and learning on the unceded traditional territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people. 

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Nadler, R. (2020). On Psychologizing Racism. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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