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Individual racism requires collective effort

The Targum recently published a thought provoking commentary about battling individual racism against African Americans, written by Yvanna Saint-Fort, a self-identified black woman. As a Latino American myself, and having grown up in a community overflowing with other Latino and African Americans, I sympathize with her.

In her commentary, Saint-Fort described how on her train ride back from New York City, she saw a cement backyard bordered by a chain link fence where about two dozen black men were idly walking around. Of course she didn’t have the full context of what those men were doing there or what that place was, but that didn’t stop her mind from making a snap judgment, and so she thought to herself “is that a jail?”

This kind of instinctual reaction to assume the worst about a group of idle black men in an unfriendly environment is a reaction to be expected from many Americans, considering what we have learned through the portrayal of African Americans in major media outlets. Think about the fact that this country holds the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world, and the majority of them are African Americans. Think about how two of the past three off-campus crime alert emails from the Rutgers police concerned at least one attacker that was a black male. Think about how you’ve seen African Americans portrayed in your local news or on national news programs.

Now consider this in light of the fact that we have basic animalistic instincts that produce the kinds of reactions we have when we feel threatened or in danger. When you walk down a dark empty street all alone at night and you see a hooded figure slowly approaching you, it’s your instincts that have conditioned you to think that this person is probably trouble. But it’s the media that has conditioned you to think this person is probably black.

It was this learned behavior that prompted Saint-Fort to immediately think “jail” when she saw that scene as her train passed by, and it was probably this same learned behavior that prompted a police officer to shoot unarmed Michael Brown in Missouri a few weeks ago. We should all feel a twinge of shame that over the past few decades we’ve allowed this subtle racism to take root in our country, and that this incarceration culture now permeates economically disadvantaged areas. In my home community of New Brunswick, few of the people I knew growing up ever seemed surprised or disturbed to hear that someone else had a family member who was “locked up.” Americans have come to expect this from blacks and minorities in general, and we are becoming desensitized to their plight.

We’ve been conditioned to see African Americans as the problem, and that is the real problem. But how do we recondition ourselves? Even though we weren’t asked to go through this conditioning, we are now responsible for unlearning everything it has drilled into our heads. There is no other option. We have to deal with this and other race issues within us before we can truly confront them in our communities and in the world. But there is no proven method or systematic routine to unlearn racism. There isn’t exactly a therapy for this like drug rehabilitation or road rage classes. And there is no use in trying to deny or suppress inner racism like you would a craving for a sweet treat. Modern research on behavior has shown that it is difficult for people to unlearn routine behaviors and unfortunately, racism on the individual scale is routine for many people when it comes to specific situations like the ones discussed so far.

Again, if we turn to research, there is evidence that first-learned behaviors can never truly be erased from our brains and instead we have to replace those behaviors with different ones. But what do you replace racism with? What do you replace the fear instinct with? What should be the first thought in your mind when you see what the previous author saw? There are no clear answers at this time and so this is one of our challenges going into the 21st century. Individual racism should be one of the main issues we discuss and those future discussions should be focused on two things: what alternative behaviors could be instilled in each individual in place of socially learned racism and how to prevent our mass media and national culture from conditioning future generations to think and behave in this way.

Brandon Diaz-Abreu is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in computer science.

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