Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Contributor Spotlight: Is Racism Just a Part of Being Human?

Due to limited staffing at 6and44, we are trying something new.  We hope you will enjoy a new feature called Contributor Spotlight. Today's post is written by Allison Gamble who has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.

Quick shameless plug: Are you an expert in the area of race and incarceration? Do you have a story to tell? Advice to offer? Do you have an example from your own experience? We’d love to have you as the next Contributor Spotlight! Contact us at:

Is Racism Just a Part of Being Human?

Most Americans are pretty well aware of racism and its effects on our population, but the question of why racism exists is something of a mystery to many. Does racism occur naturally, or is it a learned behavior? If it's learned, can it be unlearned? Is there hope for a racism-free America?

Some theories suggest racism is merely a fear of the unknown, and that these fears foster prejudices against individuals of different ethnicity. There are several reasons a person would fear individuals of another race, including previous negative experiences with people of another race or being taught from childhood to fear those who are different.

Sociology and lead us to believe most actions and behaviors are learned and do not occur naturally. Most sociologists believe racism is such a learned behavior. They reason that children raised in a racist household or community where racism is prevalent will eventually adopt these beliefs and behaviors as their own. This could be considered good news: if racism can be learned, it can therefore be unlearned. But how can one unlearn racism? Generally speaking, education and dialogue are key, as is recognizing, accepting, and appreciating human differences.

It could also be argued racism is a natural human behavior. This theory suggests humans naturally group according to ethnicity, and that this division inevitably leads to discrimination. Studies have shown individuals will naturally try to surround themselves with people of their own race, even when they differ in age, sex, and ways of thinking. This "unconscious racism" can still be a powerful force for discrimination, as it still serves to separate and exclude.

Racism seems to run rampant in the judicial and corrections systems in the United States. The African American population in US prisons has always been significantly higher than the White prison population. This is true of females as well as males, but the numbers are considerably higher among men. In fact, black males outnumber white males more than six to one in the US prison system. Further, it's reported that one in three African American men aged 20 to 29 are under some type of criminal justice supervision, whether incarceration, probation, and parole.

Of the many theories on why this is this case, the most widely accepted highlights the role of socioeconomic issues associated with crime. Typically, African Americans come from lower socioeconomic brackets than most Whites. This includes lower levels of income and education as well as different associated social groups and upbringing. It's believed factors such as poverty, poor education, and coming from broken families lead to higher instances of crime in any community. However, since African Americans are more likely to hail from these sorts of circumstances, it is they who populate US prisons in disproportionate numbers.

The war on drugs is another significant factor. Since crack cocaine sparked the war on drugs in 1980, the number of incarcerated drug offenders has steadily been on the rise. In fact, approximately one third of the US prison population is made up of drug offenders. Furthermore, studies indicate that African Americans are eight times more likely than Whites to be convicted of drug charges. African Americans may not break the law more often than anybody else, but they more often suffer the consequences. This brings socioeconomic aspects back into play, especially poverty. African Americans are less likely to be able to afford lawyers, which increases their chances of being convicted on drug charges and impairs their ability to effectively appeal such convictions.

Whether racism is a learned or innate behavior may always be up for debate. However, just because we don't know why racism exists doesn't mean we can't work to defeat it. If racism is learned, it can most certainly be unlearned. By the same token, natural racism can be overcome as well. Not all natural instincts are acceptable or productive, and humankind needs to work to overpower our inclination to set ourselves apart according to ethnicity. Racism may be a natural instinct; hate, however, is not.