So you have this friend who has never shown any racist tendencies. They never actively discriminated against any minority group, and many may have actively navigated multiracial climates, or may have even been mentors to a multiracial groups of youths. Then suddenly, they post something or say something that repeats a talking point from what has been identified as having a racist origin.
Holy s#@t! Is your friend a racist?
Probably not. More likely, though, they fell victim to what are some pretty manipulative tactics used by the real racists to get people to unknowingly support them. When society began to shun overt racism, racists had to find new ways to push others down and preserve their unequal power and privilege. After 60+ years of practice, they have developed methods that are a psychologically brilliant as they are insidious.
Now the key to understanding how they do this lies in the fact that moral decision making is an emotional, not a rational decision. Your rational mind can be used to shape and guide your emotions, but when it comes time to actually make a decision, you base that moral decision on whether you predict a result you find emotionally rewarding or emotionally disgusting. The goal of the racist it to reduce your friend’s feeling of disgust while simultaneously creating a way to trick your friend into feeling an emotional reward by agreeing with them.
1) They deny racism to disarm the disgust related to racism.
Your friends are not racist, and they know racism is wrong. When they see a racist event, that event will produce moral disgust which will be enough for most people to oppose the event, and work against the purpose of the racists who want to trick your non-racist friend into agreeing with them. What’s more, if your non-racist friend found out he or she was benefiting from the other person’s racism, that would create a sense of guilt, which is a very strong feeling of moral disgust that would turn your friend into a unstoppable machine to destroy that form of racism. After all, if someone hurt your friend you would be angry, but if someone tricked you into hurting your friend, that is the sort of scenario that creates movie hero revenge stories. So the trick the racists employ is to first deny the racism that occurs. They do this by either redefining racism so that it is not racism, or they minimize the reality of racism to reduce your friend’s motivation to act.
Racists trick your non-racists friends by clever repackaging of racial events. They deny the institutional racism that occurs by narrowly defining racism as individual violent acts, and when an individual acts out violently, they define away that act so that it’s the effect of a lone nut, and not representative of the system. They also redefine events to remove the racial context. Remember when your friend was supporting that voter ID law that disenfranchised black voters? They were told it was being passed to prevent voter fraud (which the racists forgot to tell your friend really didn’t occur on any substantial level), and so your friend made the moral choice based on the emotionally rewarding motivation of stopping a crime, and not because of any racism. When the Dylan Roof story first broke, pundits tried to pass it off as an attack on Christianity, not as racism. The Confederate flag is getting repackaged by racists because they know that your friend would never support it if they knew its true history as a use for racial intimidation, as that would cause moral disgust. But if they redefine it as Southern pride, then defending the flag is more about free speech and Southern identity, which can be emotionally rewarding fights to take on.
Minimizing racial impact serves to defuse your friend’s motivation to oppose racism when it becomes apparent. By denying the impact of a racial act, they can prevent your friend from wanting to take an action to oppose that act. Remember when Eric Gardner was killed by police? The talking point was “if he wasn’t resisting, it would have not happened,” presenting the issue more of one person resisting arrest, and less about a policing philosophy that targeted minorities unequally, that Garner was targeted so frequently and so cruelly that he had previously filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, or that he wasn’t actually violently resisting in a way that required him to be tackled and restrained by multiple officers. When people are actually killed in a racist event, the talking point becomes about crime in general, not about racism, with the intended effect of people seeing crime, not racial targeting for violence as the problem. People speaking up against the Confederate flag, or any racially motivated symbol or statement, the talking point becomes that this is about people being offended, not about the threats of violence intended. After all, terroristic speech is very specific and the impact cannot be denied. but if something were merely “offensive” then that is a subjective response, emotional and unrelated to any actual realistic consequence, and therefor much less likely to get your friend to oppose the speech.
2) They create an emotional conflict against opposing racism by forcing your non-racist friends to benefit from it.
Your non-racist friends would not actively discriminate or seek any benefit from racism. However, the system is set up so this happens whether they like it or not. What’s more, not only are your friends receiving benefits, they are dependent on them, every non-minority does. If your name sounds African American, you are less likely to get call for a job interview. In today’s job environment, where there are more seekers than jobs, you need to be appreciative for every employment chance you get. But when reminded of the fact that people could have been denied your interview slot just because of how their name sounded, that can quickly create a huge sense of guilt. So, do you give up your hard to find avenue to financial stability and overall survival and risk another few months/years of financial disaster in the name of equality, or do you accept the job and feed your family? This is a hard choice to make, and one that we are being forced to make. What about the justice system? Though blacks no more likely to be criminals, they are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and receive harsher sentences than whites committing the same acts. When an officer pulls you over for running a stop light or for driving with a burnt out headlight, but then lets you off with a warning, only to then see an African American getting pulled over, harassed, and even beaten, are you supposed to still be thankful for that preferential treatment, or are you supposed to go to the local station and turn yourself in for abuse just to even things out? These scenarios produce a lot of guilt for obvious reasons. Now you can fight against the system to correct the problems, which is a long term fight which will cause you to have to accept the racists benefits in order to survive the battle to see it to the end, or you can deny the racism in order to deny the guilt for s quick relief.
And guess which option the racists will help your non-racist friends out with (hint, see above)
3) Racists use anger to knock your non-racist friends offbalance
Anger, if properly balanced, can be a very useful emotion for flagging a problem, and motivating you to solve the problem. But if anger becomes overwhelming, it can actually shut down higher rational thought, a process known as the “amygdala hijack.” The racists know that if they can overstimulate your non-racist friends with anger, they can move them past the stage of being motivated to solve a problem, to a stage where they can be manipulated to react without thinking, and react in a way they prefer.
First, racists prep the stage by creating an us-them environment. Now because they are motivated to deny the actual racism, they redefine this us-them along non-racist lines. They choose the sides in ways that your non-racist friends to associate themselves with the racists on other characteristics. Ever wonder why there is such a rigid and adversarial conservative/liberal relationship these days? The truth is that that real conservatives and real liberals are actually quite capable of existing together harmoniously without the vitriol, and in fact, the world functions better when the two are working together to develop balanced ideas. The reason these two groups are forced into conflict is that is sets up the mindset that there is an us and there is a them, because when you are angry and have to choose which side to join, you are more likely to reflexively help out the people you see more like yourself. When the Dylan Roof terrorist attack happened, certain groups were working very hard to redefine it as an attack on Christianity, because they knew that this kind of act would hijack their us-them system, placing them in the “them” category. But if they redefined it as an attack on Christianity, then making the attack one on the majority of the country, that would place them back into the “us” category.
Next, the racists get very angry the moment there is a threat your non-racist friends see something that might reveal the racism. Because of human empathy, emotions can stimulate like emotions. This is why we are happy when we hear a child laugh, cry during sad movies, get scared when a Jason pops out of the woods in front of that teen, etc. The racist get proactively and seemingly uncontrollably angry, yelling and shouting until they are red in the face, to bring your friends into an similar state of anger. The angrier the racists proactively make your friends, more likely they will trigger the amygdala hijack, and the less your friends will be able to think in that moment. Whenever one of these incidents happen, watch what happens with certain pundits, they go from calm smugness to red faced, finger pointing, full on anger mode.
Finally, the racists reinterprets the problem as a “them” attacking the “us” and hands your non-racist friends a solution that involves defending the “us” by reinforcing what are the racist’s secret goals. Your non-racist friends are too overstimulated at this point to see that the goals will ultimately serve to propagate inequality, they are just motivated to get this perceived attack on them to go away. This is why any attempt for social justice gets quickly redefined as an attack on the majority group. When people started pointing out the difference between how Dylan Roof was treated, and how several African Americans have been treated by the police, people interpreted this revelation as a statement that Dylan should have been abused, not the intended statement that was meant to say that if Dylan could be apprehended without incident, so could the others. But rather than see that it was a statement that violence was unnecessary in all the cases many of your non-racist friends interpreted it as promoting violence towards Dylan because he was white because this system has primed them to see such statements as an attack on their “us.”
4) Racists use insult and sarcasm to reward your non-racist friends.
Ever wonder why certain pundits spend a lot of time making infantile jokes and throwing sarcastic insults at people? This is because this is the final step in manipulating your non-racist friends.
Aggressive behaviors have a rewarding effect on the brain, stimulating the same brain areas as are stimulated when you use cocaine. In addition, humor can short circuit a person’s shame response and normalize prejudicial views. Add these two together, and you have created a system to both remove any guilt over a possibly racist and reward people for sharing it through the use of mockery and insult.
Essentially, these jokes are not just jokes, but the final piece in how racists get your non-racists friends to agree with them. The biggest bit of evidence of the fact they are not just jokes comes from the reactions that get invoked when someone points out the harm done by the joke. You see, if a joke were just a joke, and really didn’t mean anything, then the joker would be willing to put the person above the joke and apologize, or at least passively refrain from telling the joke in the future. But if that joke were actually important, if the joke meant more than the person, then the response would be to attack person and the reason to oppose the joke.
And when it comes to these jokes, which response happens more?
What is interesting is that this last point can actually invoke the cycle of manipulation again. Someone points out the racist content of the joke, so the racists then 1) deny the racist content, 2) cajole your non-racist friends into admitting the humor 3) reframe the opposition as political correctness or oversensitive offense attacking the “us” group your friend belongs to, and 4) reward your friend with new jokes.
So what does this mean?
First, your friends are not actually racist, they are just falling victim to a very sophisticated form of manipulation.
Second, to be effective in countering this manipulation, you have to likewise raise the level of sophistication in your responses. The moment you start accusing your friend of racism, you leave them feeling attacked, and will actually push them further into the clutches of the manipulating racists. When you accuse your friends of blatant racism, you are, in turn, othering them, creating a separation between you and him/her in the us-them mindset that has been built up. What is needed is that you need to take time to craft a deprogramming argument. Your friend will agree with you if you give him/her reasons to agree, but you have to be willing to make that effort. You see, you have one thing that the racists who are manipulating don’t have: a personal connection. But the moment you start throwing insults and attacks, you can fracture that connection and lose your edge.