Driving around the part of Fresno, California, where Shannon Brown spent much of her life feels a bit like entering an alternate, more insular version of America, something out of an earlier time. We passed a white woman holding a baby in a driveway. An older white man worked in his yard. A white woman walked a dog. There didn’t appear to be a single person of color in the area, I said. That’s because there are none, Brown replied.
Brown, 48, is white, with blond hair, pale blue eyes, and milky skin. She wore a checkered black-and-white dress, a silver cross dangling from her neck. Brown had nothing against diversity, she explained. She was just accustomed to living among people who look like her—it’s the way she was raised. When she was growing up, her family discouraged Brown from associating with those people. “They definitely did not like black people. We never had black people over,” Brown said. “My family wasn’t overtly racist,” she said, but they weren’t going to befriend nonwhite people or welcome them into their home. Her family members, like many residents of this part of Fresno, are “polite racists,” Brown said, the kind of people who smile to your face if you’re a minority and call you a racial slur behind your back.
Scientists have been working for more than a century to understand how racism operates—and how it might be cured. The notion that biases can be identified and overcome connects with early theories about how racism manifests in the brain. From the 1920s to the 1950s, psychologists studying racism considered prejudice to be a psychopathology—“a dangerous aberration from normal thinking,” writes John Dovidio, a Yale University psychology professor, in the Journal of Social Issues. Psychologists employed personality tests to identify prejudiced people, with the hope of understanding how to treat them with psychotherapy, under the assumption that “if the problem, like a cancerous tumor, can be identified and removed or treated, the problem will be contained, and the rest of the system will be healthy.”
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