Ferguson: Racism, Negrophobia, or both?

Stanford University junior Brandon Hill writes:

“A few nights ago, I noticed a dark spot in my periphery. Suddenly it twitched. My stomach dropped. The dark spot was a five-inch spider, looking as if it had muscle and bone. There was no possible way I could sleep soundly until the behemoth was neutralized. I scrambled to find a shoe, then swung it with all my might. With a clap of thunder, the big dark enemy was no more; flattened to a wall stencil. Relief.

“Phobias are extreme aversions. They are embedded deep in our psyches, activated when we come face-to-face with the thing we fear. For me, spiders trigger overreactions. For others, it can be people.

“Black people.”

Framing extreme racism as a deep-seated psychological phobia (“negrophobia”, as Hill calls it) casts new light on the way we understand racially charged events like Michael Brown’s murder. For instance, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, following criticism for racist comments he made, released a statement claiming that “Mr. Sterling is currently receiving treatment for negrophobia, a medical condition he was diagnosed with years ago….We ask the public to be respectful and understanding as Mr. Sterling deals with this difficult disease.”

Does “negrophobia” truly help us to better understand the institutional, societal, and possibly psychological complexes that lead to racism? Or does it simply deflect blame from the likes of Donald Sterling and Officer Darren Wilson, Brown’s shooter?

The proposition that racism can be attributed to inherent psychological effects is a tenuous one at best–the paper that Hill cites in claiming that black people are “the group most feared by White adults” in fact only concludes that in-group/out-group effects exist for both black people and white people, and that those effects are slightly stronger for white people. No other racial groups are even mentioned in the article.

We’re left with two possibilities: we accept Hill’s claim that racism is attributable to semiuncontrollable psychological impulses, or we reject the notion that people are incapable of overcoming their psychoses in favor of basic respect for their fellow humans. Either way, we’re left with a more important question: why does this distinction even need to be made in the first place?

The very existence of the concept of “negrophobia” speaks only to how ingrained racism is in our society. It’s difficult to attribute human behavior (like racism or mass murder) to disease or psychosis or something similarly inherently uncontrollable. But if such behaviors do turn out to be, to some extent, inherent, it’s also difficult to argue that people should try to overcome them. If someone claims to be a genetic arsonist, it’s easy to expect them to control their inner arson and avoid playing with fire; if someone claims to be born gay, any expectation that they should try to “control” their “homosexual urges” would be widely condemned. If someone claims to have been born with “negrophobia,” what’s the expectation?

Research does seem to point to some amount of inherent stereotyping, just by nature of how we as humans process the world. Our brains optimize for efficiency via heavy use of classification and pattern-recognition, so it’s no surprise that we make thousands of snap judgments about people on a day-to-day basis. I’m not even sure that’s avoidable or even necessarily bad. (As goes the Avenue Q song, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”). But when it comes down to life-or-death situations, when somebody’s job or somebody’s life is in the hands of racial bias, we as a society need to learn to control and overcome our own inherent biases, whether or not we call them phobias. As Hill puts it, “We as Americans must learn to see each other properly and not through the lens of phobia.” And perhaps more importantly, we need to educate our children and raise them to be as bias-free, respectful, open-minded a generation as possible. Perhaps once institutional biases disappear, personal and internal ones will fade as well.

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