Critical Thinking Approaches to Confronting Racism

Benjamin Radford

The racial divisiveness and tensions that erupted this past year (and specifically in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August), resulted, predictably, in a maelstrom of opinions—informed and otherwise. Amid all the arguing over whether Nazis should be punched, if and when censorship is acceptable, whether President Trump is racist, the appropriateness of publicly naming and shaming marchers, and so on, one thing largely missing from the debate is evidence-based guidance on what psychology and sociology can teach us about what’s effective at reducing racism and prejudice.

Emotionally satisfying reactions are not necessarily effective ones, and may in fact be counterproductive. Is it better to engage with racists or deny them an audience? What do we know about what is most likely to actually change people’s minds? There’s no panacea, but here are some strategies suggested by experts who have experience in productively confronting racism and prejudice.

Researchers found evidence suggesting that racial and gender biases can be reduced using personal engagement instead of hostile reactions; as a Vox headline noted, “Research Says There Are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Isn’t One of Them.” Likewise, former white supremacists recommend that the most effective way to deal with racists is not to attack, shout down, or insult them because it just fuels their narrative of victimhood and gets them sympathy—even perhaps from whose who otherwise wholly disagree with their views, such as free speech absolutists. Musician Daryl Davis has taken a similar tactic, as explained in a Huffington Post story:

For the past few decades the black musician, actor and author has made it his mission to befriend people in hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan by calmly confronting them with the question: “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” … In 1983, after Davis played a gig in an all-white venue in Frederick, Maryland, an audience member approached him to compliment him on his piano playing. The two struck up a friendly conversation, and Davis was surprised to discover the man was a card-carrying member of the KKK. Through this man, Davis got in touch with Roger Kelly, the former Imperial Wizard of the white supremacist organization. Over time, Kelly and Davis became close and Kelly eventually quit the hate group.

That pattern has repeated itself a dozen more times, as seen in the documentary film Accidental Courtesy.

We invited several distinguished experts to contribute their brief thoughts and observations about how best to deal with racism through evidence-based strategies. As Carol Tavris noted, racism and prejudice are thorny, age-old problems with many origins. There is no single solution, no magic spell that will bring everyone together. But—like any human endeavor—some evidence-based approaches show more promise than others. As Stephen Pinker and Michael Shermer argue in their books The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Moral Arc, respectively, the overall historical trends for humanity are encouraging, toward a more peaceful and more cooperative world. Perhaps by applying evidence-based strategies we can nudge that progress along.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).