A People’s Psychology of (Anti-)Racism

A People’s Psychology of (Anti-)Racism

By Anup Gampa and Jeremy Sawyer

Volume 23, number 3, Bio-Politics

Featured Image
Amitava Banerjee
Mainstream psychology overwhelmingly focuses on individual bias as a means to conceptualize and remedy racism.1 What gets obscured in this understanding is that racism is bias combined with power, from the individual to institutional levels.2 Unsurprisingly then, when Anup asked his students and colleagues if racism against white people, so-called “reverse racism,” is possible, most said “yes.” In this article we illustrate the problematic nature of psychology’s various approaches to racism, from evolutionary psychology on the conservative wing to social psychology on the liberal flank. While not everyone who ascribes to an individual-level understanding of racism will end up a white supremacist, these frameworks are not helpful in creating more anti-racists. Instead of these mainstream currents, we advance an intersectional Marxist psychology as an alternative for understanding and helping to dismantle racism in the US.

The question of whether racism is somehow innate has long haunted psychology. For evolutionary psychologists (EPs), “the recurrence of racial classification across cultures and the commonalities between them suggest … [they] are the product of some universal psychological disposition.”3 EPs typically subscribe to “massive modularity,” the notion that humans have evolved a multitude of specialized, domain-specific mental organs that handle many or even all mental processes.4 While reticent to claim the existence of a race-specific mental module, given the historical recency with which humans encountered “racialized” others, many EPs have proposed that essentialist views on race are close by-products of a panoply of “folk-biology” modules that interpret people’s physical characteristics. One of these is a putative “living-kind module” evolved for distinguishing species, but that is now triggered by racialized markers, causing us to interpret different “races” as if they were actually different species.5 Underlying much of this work are notions that evolutionary theory can help to explain racism because it predicts people will help those who appear phenotypically similar (more likely to share their genes) and harm those who appear dissimilar, thereby increasing the proportion of their genes in future generations.6

Another well known EP argues that during the Pleistocene era humans evolved an “ethnicity module” for detecting different ethnic groups—defined as small cultural groups with similar language, clothing, behaviors, and a common biological lineage—that again represents them as different species.7 This was supposedly adaptive in terms of reproductive fitness because people learned not to interact or mate with other ethnic groups, thus saving the ostensibly high costs (in time and energy) of attempting to coordinate with groups with different cultural norms. In modern society, racialized markers such as skin color are claimed to trigger this ethnic detector, with racist consequences. One problem with this notion of small bands of prehistoric humans avoiding each other based on their ethnicity modules is the anthropological evidence of intergroup marriage alliances, ongoing communication and interaction between groups in prehistoric North America, and an absence of hostility or territoriality between modern hunter-gatherers living arguably comparable lifestyles.8 Moreover, despite EP claims that “humans tend to classify people into races when they meet other people with different phenotypes,” there is little evidence of people thinking in such racialized ways before the rise of Western doctrinal racism in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade.9 Yet many EPs deny this recent historical emergence of racial essentialism as a way of thinking about specific human groups.10 This ahistorical, biologically determinist outlook not only fails to provide a convincing origin story for racism, it also erases the historical ascendance of racism and racist pseudoscience used to justify colonialism and slavery.

While the liberal mainstream of social psychologists do not contend that humans have hardwired aversions to those with phenotypic differences, they nonetheless assume that we are innately biased against “outgroups,” defined as groups with which an individual does not identify.11 They typically posit that our minds evolved to navigate “a social world of groups and coalitions—the categories to which such arbitrary phenotypic distinctions such as ‘race’ are then mapped.”12 Though this position is less odious in not assuming innate tendencies to discriminate based on physical appearance and in granting a greater influence to racial stereotypes that infuse our culture, we believe psychologists have been too quick to accept an innate human bias against outgroups.

Evidence cited to support these arguments includes findings that young children can show biased attitudes toward others based on trivial or arbitrary characteristics, such as a randomly assigned t-shirt color or similar taste in snacks. Purportedly, this suggests an inbuilt tendency for preferring those who are “similar to oneself” over those who are different. However, the three-year-olds studied only showed the t-shirt bias when this arbitrary attribute was labeled and made socially meaningful by others.13 Similarly, although eleven-month-old infants preferred others with a similar taste in snacks, the same study also found this bias was completely eliminated when children were not prominently reminded that they preferred a different snack.14 A close reading of the study also reveals that children did not show any bias when the difference (having different color mittens) was randomly assigned by the experimenter. This suggests children do not “automatically” sort people into preferred and non-preferred groups, contrary to mainstream accounts. More likely, such ideas are learned through interaction with a society stratified by exploitation and oppression in a multitude of ways. This is further supported by the asymmetrical nature of this racist socialization, in which Black children (and adults) on average have no implicit racial bias while white children (and adults) do.15

Because mainstream psychology views racial bias as a fundamentally individual phenomenon, it suggests that racism is best addressed (if at all) by individually targeted methods. For example, a dominant liberal perspective is that implicit (automatic and non-conscious) racial bias is a problem “in the head” of individuals and is an important basis of societal racism. Yet their individualist solutions, such as anti-bias training, have proven ineffective in reducing individual bias, even on their own terms.16 For instance, laboratory studies have shown that any benefits to individual-level anti-bias interventions last no more than a few days.17 As ongoing police killings and brutality further highlight, individual-level solutions are also woefully inadequate in addressing the institutional racism of US policing—a recent study revealed New York Police Department (NYPD) implicit bias training had no impact on officers’ behaviors.18 Police responses to protests of extrajudicial killing have revealed further depths of brutality and have violated the civil rights of protesters.19 In sum, from evolutionary to social psychology, predominant theories individualize racism and disconnect it from power relations.

We are heartened to see the recent emergence of theories like the “bias of crowds” framework that conceive of implicit racial bias as the cognitive reflection of historical and systematic inequalities.20 We aim to build on this work in developing an intersectional Marxist psychology with the following elements. First, it approaches both the individual and their social context from a dialectical and historical analysis, and thus sees racism as a social and political construction.21 Second, it involves a firm criticism of capitalism and calls for its transformation. Third, it centers the oppressed and exploited as agents of change. Finally, it demands democratic control of resources such that “the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all.”22

An intersectional Marxist psychology understands racism as integral to capitalist exploitation, and it considers anti-racist struggle essential in fighting both racism and capitalism. Crucially, our approach studies the sociopolitical history of the police as an institution to understand the psychology of police brutality and racism. By uncovering the origins of the US police in slave patrols and urban outfits used to break strikes and quell crowds, the essential role of police in defending capitalist inequality becomes clear.23 This helps us make sense of endemic racism among police departments, because not only are they rooted in slavery as an institution, their roles in maintaining class and racial hierarchies have been completely intertwined since their origins in the US.24 Thus, police are revealed as integral to the workings of capitalism, with racism a necessary feature rather than the result of a few “bad apples” or individual biases that could be shifted by requiring anti-bias training. In contrast, social psychologists argue for individualistic cognitive-behavioral interventions—like requiring police to raise their mindfulness of bias immediately before engaging with civilians. Such interventions, however, are Sisyphean when they ignore the material needs of capitalism to manage unemployment and social discontent through mass incarceration, particularly of BIPOC.25 If the police are fundamentally tasked with keeping the poor under heel, no amount of bias training will prevent them from doing so.

Doubling down on closer police partnerships, the American Psychological Association (APA) has expanded the usual repertoire of police trainings by recommending bias assessments prior to hiring, increasing mental health support, and training for working with mental health issues.26 However, police are not civil servants who protect and serve the people, but rather “violence workers” who are tasked, historically and presently, with breaking strikes, dispersing crowds, enforcing racial and class hierarchy, and using force as a means of social control.27 That the APA has a very different conception of policing is evident in its obfuscation of poverty and oppression as the key causes of crime, asserting, “Psychological research shows that a key factor shaping whether people obey the law is whether they trust the law and legal authorities.”28 Rather than “rebuilding trust” in police, a Marxist psychology helps us make sense of endemic racism among police departments. It aims at democratic control of resources for public safety and well-being, for instance by defunding police, and simultaneously investing in community health, education, and other services.

In our own work, by applying an intersectional Marxist framework emphasizing the dialectic between collective activity and individual consciousness, we found that anti-Black implicit (and explicit) bias in the US declined during the Black Lives Matter movement and especially during its high points of struggle.29 Importantly, this reduction in bias occurred across the political spectrum and despite right-wing backlash from “all/blue lives matter” campaigns. Other research suggests that LGBTQ movements and resulting policy changes have also decreased implicit bias and explicit discrimination.30 We think investigating how social movements change both society and mass consciousness is not only a hopeful direction politically, but would create a more scientifically holistic social psychology. Moreover, the new BLM movement’s full-throated calls for defunding and eventually abolishing the police provide a better roadmap for psychologists than continuing futile “partnerships” with police in hopes of reducing racial incidents. As Marxist psychologists, we are compelled through our solidarity with the oppressed to take BLM’s call as a starting point for further research.

Finally, an intersectional Marxist psychology makes clear that racism is bias plus systemic power within a larger capitalist system of oppression and exploitation. To end these psychologically debilitating conditions, a Marxist psychology demands democratic control of social resources such that “the condition for the free development of each is the free development of all.”31 This calls for psychological research in solidarity with social movements and the Black-led and now multiracial movement that is challenging systemic racism, and with the ultimate perspective of dismantling the police as an institution in the revolutionary transition to a socialist society.32 CUNY’s Public Science/Morris Justice is one example of community-driven collaboration between psychologists, community residents, and organizers. Focusing on neighborhood-level effects of the NYPD’s infamous “stop and frisk” policy that harassed civilians deemed “suspicious,” (overwhelmingly POC), this activism brought public pressure that contributed to ending the program. Despite police fear mongering that crime would skyrocket, crime dropped to record lows after stop and frisk ended.33 We call on like-minded psychologists and activists to create more such projects of resistance and to help build a genuine psychological science for the people. We have nothing to lose but our partnerships with police.

About the Authors

Anup Gampa, PhD, is a radical educator-scholar. He lives and teaches as a Marxist-queer-feminist at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He is primarily interested in understanding and dismantling systems of oppression through collective organizing and community building.

Jeremy Sawyer, PhD, is an assistant professor of Psychology at CUNY Kingsborough Community College. He studies children’s play and language development from a Vygotskian perspective, and teaches courses on disability, educational psychology, and human development. He researches the psychology of social class, worker alienation under capitalism, and how social movements like Black Lives Matter can transform our implicit and explicit mental processes. Twitter: @jeremyesawyer


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