4 Rules for Actually Ending Racism

It’s time to fight smarter, not harder

Simon Greenwood
Sep 11, 2020 · 9 min read
Martin Luther King, Jr.

The last 150 or so years have seen continuous efforts to defeat racism in America. It’s a noble goal, but unfortunately most aspiring racism-fighters have made their plans based on emotions (e.g. moral outrage) instead of using reason and social psychology. That’s made their efforts useless or even counterproductive.

Instead of treating racism like a sporting match, where our side’s goal is to yell louder than the other team’s fans, we ought to take it seriously as a problem and solve it with techniques that can actually work. That means changing a lot of our approaches — which, let’s face it, have failed repeatedly over decades — and slaying a lot of our sacred cows.

Fast fixes won’t work; ending racism is a generational goal. That makes it impossible to plan everything out in one sitting, because we have to adapt to how society changes in response to our work. What we can do right now is mentally reorient ourselves so we can lead society in the right direction instead of bumbling around in a stupor.

To get started, I propose four rules, and, as an example, show how they apply to the current Black Lives Matter movement. I’m not trying to pick on the activists in the movement, because 99% of them are great people, but because it’s a tragically perfect example of counter-productive effort.

The key to fighting racism is understanding what causes it. That’s tough if you’re immersed in 2020 American pop culture, which sees racism as a unique, incurable conflict. We talk about racism like it’s a Manichean battle between eternal good and evil. If you take a broader view then you can see that it’s not a special conflict. Humans have had group conflicts for all history, even when the groups are only separated by meaningless labels. By studying those conflicts we can understand what causes racism and what cures it.

Keep in mind we’re going to talk about racism as it’s defined by the dictionary and used by most people: prejudice based on race. We’re not going to deal with expanded definitions that include systemic, impersonal factors (because that’s a completely different problem that needs its own solution, and lumping it in with racism just confuses the issue), or the restricted definition that claims that racism against white people doesn’t count (because that’s a transparent rationalization for racial prejudice). We’re just dealing with feelings of hatred, mistrust and anger between people based on their race.

Hostility between groups is caused by competition between groups for scarce resources. Racism, then, is caused when people see themselves as lumped into group A (e.g. White people) and they have to fight with group B (e.g. Black people) over limited resources (e.g. admission spots in colleges). People in A see that B, the “outgroup,” wants to profit at the expense of A, and people in A either lose out or take the resources before B does. It’s a zero-sum competition, and you have to choose if you want you (and your family and most of your friends) to win or to lose.

Now, most people are able to ignore or sublimate the resentment that causes. Perhaps they aren’t even in a situation where that competition matters. I never felt like I was competing with other races for college admission, because I was a shoo-in for the school I wanted to go to. If I had aimed for a more prestigious school, though, or had college-age children who were less academically gifted, then I would feel the pressure of that competition more keenly.

Past anti-racism activists understood this. When Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to fight racial injustice, he called his efforts the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty.” He didn’t call them “reparations,” though they were designed to disproportionately help Black people using money that disproportionately came from White tax payers, because that name is political suicide. Instead of making his programs a conflict between races over finite resources, he painted them as all Americans working together to make a better America.

Now think of how that applies to current anti-racism movements. Instead of describing a cooperative goal, the name “Black Lives Matter” is specifically exclusionary. If it had been called “End Police Brutality” then it would’ve been more popular (and thus accomplished more) but it also would have reduced racism by creating solidarity between the poor Whites who represent the majority of victims of police brutality and Black victims of police brutality. Instead, BLM went with a name that was guaranteed to create conflict and resentment instead of progress.

The “Defund the Police” movement has the same problem with stoking group conflict. The name repels most people, and the substance of these movements only exacerbates hostility between the Black community and police departments. Acting like there’s a limited pool of money to split between the two groups will increase hostility between them, and reifies the ugly belief that we all have to pick sides in a war between African-Americans and cops.

You can’t fix a problem that you don’t understand. Like all of life’s truths, it’s obvious when you hear it but obscure when you try to apply it. The issue for anti-racism advocates is this: their main source of information is other advocates, who aren’t trying to present all the facts and paint an objective picture but instead are trying to make a persuasive case.

The job of advocates is like the job of lawyers: they take the facts and try to present them in a persuasive way, glossing over (or ignoring) the inconvenient information and playing up that which makes their cause look good. That’s fine when they’re presenting the case to a neutral judge who hears both sides. That’s a problem when advocates are presenting the case to their readership, who are already on their side and unlikely to hear the other side. It becomes a game of Telephone, with the story becoming more distorted as it passes from advocate to advocate.

Black Lives Matter has done a good job absorbing and disseminating the facts that support the cause, but a few members of that movement have also ignored, distorted, or actively obscured the facts that oppose the cause. It’s very difficult to solve a problem when you have wrong answers to the most important questions.

How often do racist cops kill Black people? In other words, how big of a problem is it? Well, that depends on how you look at it. If you’re a lefty like me, you’ve probably heard over and over that Black people are killed about twice as often as White people. So clearly racist cops are out there gunning down lots of Black people, right? Well, maybe, but that’s only part of the story.

According to FBI statistics, Black people also three times as likely to kill law enforcement officers as White people. So is the problem just a dysfunctional relationship between the Black community and cops? In other words, are interactions between Black people and cops just more likely to turn violent and possibly deadly for both parties? Well, maybe, but that’s still only part of the story.

Black people are, on average, in a bad socioeconomic situation. People of other races are simply much more likely to have escaped from the worst neighborhoods. That’s reflected in the number of times cops encounter people of different races. Black males are much more likely to have repeated contact with police officers than other people. If, hypothetically, there was no racism, and each race has the same chance of an encounter with police turning deadly, then a race which has to deal with the police more will have higher fatalities. So are more Black lives ended by the police just because Black people are disproportionately likely to be stuck in high-crime neighborhoods where they encounter cops more? Well, maybe; it’s certainly another part of the story. That’s the thing: there are many parts of the story and it’s not known how important each is. It’s unlikely that any one factor is determinative, but people talk as if there is one explanation, and they know what it is.

Why does it make a difference that we know the facts better? It means we can find solutions that actually address the underlying problem, and don’t just soothe our feelings. The solutions that we come up with otherwise, the feel-good solutions, can be useless or even counter-productive.

Knowing all the facts also gives us a better perspective on the size of the problem. Problems with huge, long-term consequences (e.g. climate change) demand more attention and emotion than we spend on cleaning up litter. The BLM cause is somewhere in the middle: In the US, you’re more likely to be killed by lightning than by a police officer if you’re unarmed. Granted, the number of unarmed people killed by law enforcement officers should be closer to 0, but even so it’s very small, and some of the hyperbole surrounding it (I’ve seen well-meaning liberals claim it’s a race war) isn’t helpful.

For a golden example of a counter-productive solution, look at how the crack cocaine epidemic was handled. Black community leaders were devastated by the addictive drug sweeping through their neighborhoods, and appealed to the Congressional Black Caucus for help. The CBC responded by passing draconian punishments for crack possession and distribution. That might have discouraged some crack users and dealers, but it hurt the communities even worse by sending a generation of young Black men to jail. The harsh crack laws are now exhibit A in the case that the War on Drugs is racist. Measures intended to help Black people hurt them.

It’s easy to anticipate these unintended consequences if you let go of paranoia. Activists are terrified of “concern trolls” sabotaging their efforts by pointing out potential downsides, so they shut out any skepticism or critical thinking as a sign of insufficient zealotry. You know what? It doesn’t matter if critics are insincere. When liquor companies criticized Prohibition as a bad idea, they were obviously self-interested. They were still right, though. If racists criticize anti-racism advocacy, their intentions are impure but their reasoning may still be perfectly sound and their conclusions may be useful.

In other words, you can outsource your critical thinking. Your political opponents usually work hard to find potential downsides to your plans. It’s your job to take those risks seriously and address them. Trying to shame or silence the critics, on the other hand, will just make your plans more likely to fail.

It’s great to understand the problem and the consequences of your solution. That’s not enough, though, unless you’re planning on changing the world alone. If you want to attract popular support — and if you’re changing laws in a democratic society then you need popular support — then you have to have a good salesman.

We call these salespeople “leaders”, but that’s misleading because you already know where you want to go. You don’t really want a leader. You want a politician, which is a kind of salesman, and it’s their job to sell your vision to the unconverted masses.

That was the genius and heroism of Martin Luther King Junior, the only American with his own national holiday. He promised a better future for everyone, where we could all get along and be judged by the content of our characters not the color of our skin. He didn’t sell his vision as helping Black people at the expense of White people, not just because he didn’t believe it, but also because that would be a non-starter. It’s hard to convert people to your cause when you’re openly hostile to them and want to see them lose for your benefit.

That’s the failure of current anti-racism advocates. Regardless of the good intentions of rank-and-file members of BLM — and it’s been my experience that they’re completely well-meaning idealists — there’s a sickness in the leadership. Look at BLM Chicago endorsing looting as a form of reparations, or social media influencers fanning flames by claiming that a 20 year old Black man who had been wounded after shooting at police was actually an unarmed 15 year old boy who had been shot 15 times and killed.

These leaders have learned the tricks that yellow journalists learned a century ago. You don’t have to worry about factual accuracy and responsible reporting when you can succeed by outraging people with nonsense. Ambitious activists know that the path to advancement is not to be more like King, but to be more like William Randolph Hearst, and be as provocative as you can get away with.

That means the onus is on us to only read, share, subscribe, retweet, and like the kinds of people we want to lead us. No more hyperventilating, posing crazies. We need hopeful, loving uniters. Saying “we’ll all be united once everyone does what I tell them to” doesn’t count. You have to offer a better future even for people you hate.

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