Race as a False Construct Maintained due to the “Backfire Effect”

In the final of three episodes on the “Backfire Effect” by the “You Are Not so Smart” podcast, renowned cognitive psychologist based at the University of Bristol, U.K, Steven Lewandowsky introduces the concept of “motivated skepticism.” He found that people were slow to update their memories after deeply held false beliefs were corrected. People cling to beliefs about war, politics, climate change, the media and “group identity”  even after contrary evidence is presented. The threshold percentage “tipping point” that leads one to change their opinions varies but after studying the latest Presidential Election, Lewandowsky found that 40% consistently lead people to change their opinions. The amount of negativity on both sides of the election was a problem. However, “fake news” and propaganda isn’t the problem according to Lewandowsky, but it is instead control in that people choose what they hear. If a media source continually goes against your beliefs, people will walk away in favor of one that capitulates to your views.This phenomena is not necessarily unique to the United States but Lewandowsky found that Australians and Germans generally change their opinions after a belief is proven false. Whether it be climate change, race relations or anything else, little progress can be made if people cannot even agree on what information is factual and what is not, especially in a democracy.

At one point in the episode, Lewandowsky explains that “Science is smarter than scientists” and that scientists listen to science. However, as we’ve seen in class, scientists and medical clinicians have their own biases learned from society over time. As detailed throughout Medical Apartheid, these types of professionals have historically treated blacks unequally in practice. In Toni Morrison’s Home Cee admires Dr. Scott for apparently treating sick black and poor people when others would not. However, in reality, he systematically sterilized blacks exclusively, including Cee, without their consent. In the podcast episode, partisanship is the key factor in deciding what information people accept, reject, or seek out. Lewandowsky refers to partisanship as a drug or a lens that changes people’s perspective. In saying that people are partisan, he refers to synonyms “tribe, party, team and ingroup” which in relating to this class, could include race.

In American society, there is an emphasis put on race, ultimately stemming from slavery. While people may be bigots and racists behind closed doors, there is still a general consensus that all races are equal. However, even so there is still a general belief that all races are different. In reality, as we learned earlier in the semester while watching “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” there is actually no trait, characteristic, or gene inherent in people that distinguishes race. There is in fact great genetic diversity within races and there are often more commonality between people of other races than their might be within. While one could point to examples like the Sickle Cell Anemia being present in a lot of people with African ancestry, this is actually a misconception. In class we learned that the gene variant for sickle cell disease is actually related to malaria, not race or skin pigmentation.

Therefore, the concept of dividing people into races is factually wrong. However, so many people believe that race exists that it is a social fact, and therefore does. The amount of scientific information it would take to convince all people that race does not actually exist could never be conveyed because the people would walk away before even hearing it all. For this reason, voices in the black community must be very proactive in conveying their desire for equality under the law as well as to be genuinely perceived as being equal, and specifically not inferior. However, while this increased flow of information changes some people’s opinions and perceptions, the “backfire effect” leads too many bigoted or insensitive white people to get annoyed. This annoyance resulting from the dissonance between what some people believe and what they are being told can actually reinforce the false beliefs. Unfortunately, if science and reason cannot change people’s minds, protests could (and in some cases have) become riots.

Zombiism Through Poverty, Slavery and Disease

In an article published by “The Guardian,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/05/hookworm-lowndes-county-alabama-water-waste-treatment-poverty , Ed Pilkington reveals details about an epidemic that is ravaging the American south. The proliferation of hookworm is happening under the mainstream radar largely because the parasitic hookworm is only rampant in heavily impoverished areas. It is rampant specifically in areas where people are more likely to come into contact with raw sewage and human waste through drinking water or cracked pipes during heavy rains and because of otherwise shoddy infrastructure. The parasite travels through people’s skin, typically using the soles of barefeet as an entry point. From there, according the the article, it saps the life force from people as it sucks blood from the small intestine leading to cognitive problems, weight loss, anemia and other health problems (Pilkington, 2017). Hookworm prevalence over hundreds of years helped lead to the stigma and stereotype of “the lazy and lethargic southern redneck” (Pilkington, 2017). In a way, the symptoms of hookworm broadly fit the descriptions of a zombie. And, in Zone One, Colson Whitehead uses a virus to explain the means for which the corpses became reanimated.

Where Haitian voodoo traditions employ magic as the means of reanimating a corpse, Zone One uses a plague. Traditional Hatian zombiism involves supernatural magic and because slavery was such an egregious institution of unfathomable evil, it makes sense why supernatural forces relating to spiritualism could be the only source of reanimation in older works of zombie fiction. At the time, slaves could be considered zombies because they were stripped of all “life” as they lost all hope and motivation and were in most instances “dead on the inside” as they were treated grossly inhumanly and were often stripped of their loved ones. Slaves were also traditionally discouraged from learning and becoming literate, further leading to the absence of cognition that signifies a zombie. However, in Zone One, disease and sickness is used as a more literal metaphor to explain that poverty, specifically that faced by blacks in America (NYC ghettos) is a debilitating sickness that is inescapable if not contained. As is the process of dying and being reanimated cyclical, so too is the cycle of poverty. In relating to the hookworm article, Pilkington writes that “[the symptoms of hookworm are constantly] helping to trap [victims] into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.” (Pilkington, 2017)

Just as disease is more easily spread in impoverished areas, so to is zombiism in Zone One as it reads “The construction company had lost liquidity the year before and his parents complained about the eyesore as if under contractual obligation. The plastic sheets rippling where there should have been walls, the great mounds of orange dirt that seeped out in defeat after every rain. It was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, his parents fussed. They spread sickness.” (Whitehead, p. 23) In his article, Pilkington also describes an anecdotal scene of a child playing basketball in his driveway feet away from a puddle of sewage coming from a busted pipe on his lawn, where mosquitoes are described to be congregating (Pilkington, 2017). Just as slave children toiled barefoot in fields, devoid of educational opportunities and subject to disease and nutritional deficiency, so too are impoverished southern poor kids, of both African and European descent, subject to hookworm which stunts cognitive development and leads to malnutrition. So in a sense, for poor, black southern children, some of the perilous consequences felt during slavery are being reanimated and manifesting themselves today.

The White-Savior Industrial Complex and Voluntourism

Today in class, we examined two articles titled “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” by Teju Cole and “The white tourist’s burden” by Rafia Zakaria which both focus on the negative consequences of voluntourism. This term refers to privileged, first world citizens gallivanting around the globe “helping” poor people in variously afflicted parts of the globe in various ways. The motivations of these helpers vary across every individual participant in every individual voluntourism program and range from altruistic to self-seeking. In Evelyn Mendez’s blog post titled “Volunteer?”, she references another article, “The Trouble with Medical “Voluntourism”” which sheds light on the damaging effects of institutions like “Doctors without Borders Alternative.” Groups like this are tasked with performing clinical surgeries such as delivering babies and pulling teeth without the proper experience and oftentimes, sanitation or equipment (Sullivan, 2017). These risky practices by incompetent students acting as unqualified practitioners of medicine often lead to more harm for patients than good (Sullivan, 2017). Mendez explains that these students are often going on these trips only to make themselves appear better on a resume to get into a better medical school for their own personal gain. However, the students themselves do not stay in the area abroad long enough to see the damage they potentially cause, but rather only long enough to feel good about the short term relief they provide. This, both the moral and selfish motivation to help people whose culture and problems the helper are not privy to, embodies the “White Savior Industrial Complex” Cole and Zakaria refer to in their articles.

What makes any institutional problem an “Industrial Complex”, whether it be the “Prison Industrial Complex” or the “Military Industrial Complex” is that the system in question is profitable as well as self-sustaining and justifiable through rhetoric. In the case of the WSIC, Americans are given a challenge or palatable enemy, like Joseph Kony or “hungry mouths, child soldiers or raped civilians” (Cole, 2012). Next, they take the moral high ground as people who are “going to ride in on a white horse and resolve it.” (Cole, 2012) So when someone like Kony is stopped or any amount of children are fed by privileged white people, they gain satisfaction not out of the resultant happiness their help lead to but by the implication that they are better people because of it.

Cole’s sequential tweets are spot on in describing how privileged whites do good deeds that have no real lasting impact not to achieve “justice” but to simply satisfy “sentimental needs” and have “a big emotional experience” (Cole, 2012). Not only are the roots of the problems often ignored, but other problems are created as a result. Cole later explains in the article that Nigerians who were protesting their corrupt government were noticeably not aided by the US government because of oil interest Yet the US government released a statement “supporting” the protesters right to protest in order to give off the image of preserving democracy and individual rights without making an actual change (Cole, 2012). A way to make actual change would be to import more expensive oil from non corrupt regimes to bolster them instead of empowering corrupt regimes simply because they produce a cheaper product. When money is on the line for privileged folks, morality is almost always tossed aside.

Meanwhile, Zakaria explains that there is a specific voluntourism program in South Africa that actually creates orphans. Because the American workers have economic backing, they resultantly “crowd out local workers” which leads parents to send their kids away to these orphan centers where they can actually afford to go to school (Zakaria, 2014). The question of whether it is better to be an educated orphan or non educated child living with their parents in poverty is irrelevant. The point that it is unjust for foreigners to be dictating the lives of native inhabitants at their own convenience for reasons independent of their plight is relevant, however. In class, Frank raised the solid point that most people participating in these programs are students on vacations which means a lot of the “help” might come seasonally. While I must be careful not to generalize all voluntourists as being unwanted and ignorant to the causes they are supposedly fighting, Zakaria explains that the participants should pay their “due diligence” by attempting to assimilate themselves with the culture as well as gain a real understanding of the native peoples’ and their plight (Zakaria, 2014). Both writers articulate the problem that many voluntourists simply go on these trips to feel good about themselves and bolster resumes as well as gain “good party stories” and “Facebook profile pictures” instead of for a more altruistic reason such as a desire to help people in need (Zakaria, 2014). These intrinsic motivations for white people to help non white people are more often than not self-serving and epitomize the WSIC.

Dwarf the Soul and Preserve the Body

In PhD Alonda Nelson’s The Long Duree of Black Lives Matter, she explains that immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation freed African slaves throughout America, there was a tremendous spike in lynchings and also police violence against Africans, a problem which persists today. While I would never denigrate all police officers with a broad brush, especially considering the proliferation of illegal guns in poor, often predominately black communities in America, there is undoubtedly an epidemic of police brutality against Africans in the form of excessive force, racial profiling and even shooting unarmed civilians because of a perceived threat based on racial biases. In response to abolition, whites who lost their free labor spurred a counter movement aimed at suppressing the liberties and literal existence of Africans in America. This manifested itself through occupational and educational discrimination, redlining and extrajudicial murders but even more sadistically and methodically through mass sterilization by doctors who blacks had no choice but to trust.

In the article, Nelson describes what Fanne Lou Hemer experienced, calling it the “Mississippi appendectomy.” This referred to a method of sterilizing poor African women in her home state, an injustice she herself experienced at the hands of a white doctor in 1961. In chapter 12 of Toni Morrison’s Home, which takes place years after the Korean War during the same time period Nelson was actually victimized, Frank discovers Cee unconscious at Dr. Scott’s office with blood around her genital area. Earlier in the novel, Cee admired Dr. Scott for helping poor, underprivileged blacks out of what she presumed was the kindness of his heart. What she did not notice was his books on eugenics. In chapter 12 when Frank arrives at the doctors office, Dr. Scott is so scared that Frank has come to exact revenge on him that he tries to shoot Frank, but fails because he is out of bullets. To him, Cee was dispensable and he therefore didn’t feel guilty about experimenting on he r or sterilizing her, but was instead only fearful for his own life. Dr. Scott was a fraud like so many doctors must have been at the time. For people to summarily dismiss Black Lives Matter as either fringe or unnecessary in modern times, they must ask themselves if medical professionals in their parents’ generations had drugged someone they knew unconscious and sterilized them and people like you or them on a systematic level if you would feel like people cared about your life.

When BLM protests in the streets on behalf of current, prevalent police brutality and murdering of black people, people say they are themselves the problem and should organize and protest respectfully and totally nonviolently. Yet when Colin Kaepernick of the NFL took a knee during the national anthem (he was the first to do so), he was ultimately fired and essentially blacklisted by all teams. He vocalized that he was protesting racial inequality in America and received minimal support. It was only when President Donald Trump actually called the NFL players who protested “sons of bitches” while saying they should “be fired” that NFL owners supported the protest during the national anthem. Before Trump had called out the NFL brand, only the players, many of whom are black, supported the protest and it wasn’t until after his comments that the billionaire owners supported the movement. This support is not because they wish to fight racial inequality, but rather to preserve a profitable brand which takes young men and swallows them to feed the beast in exchange for temporary fame and fortune, almost always causing the individual permanent physical injury in the process. The article writes about Fred Hampton, a Black Panther’s Party leader who was killed in his sleep by law enforcement ultimately for spouting ideas like “policing the police” and endorsing wider social justice. Kaepernick is a more mild, modern equivalent martyr in the sense that he compromised his promising, lucrative career as an NFL quarterback in order to stand up for his inconvenient beliefs (ironically by kneeling).