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  • Reverend James Squire

The Biology of Racism

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Another black man was shot by police officers. This time it was in Philadelphia. The victim’s mother had called for assistance regarding a domestic incident. His mother made it clear that her son, Walter Wallace, age 27, was mentally ill and taking medication for his illness. Walter had a knife in his hand and was making his way toward the officers. His mother and bystanders were pleading with the police to put their guns down. They tried to deescalate the situation.

14 shots were fired, 7 from each police officer. 10 shots entered his chest. Given everything that is happening in our country with the Black Lives Matter Movement, you would have thought that common sense would have prevailed. The officers didn’t have tasers with them because of a shortage of funds, but he could have been saved with his mother and bystanders willing to intervene. Why did the officers do what they did knowing that this would be a cause for the killing to become a national story on the evening news?

It doesn’t make sense. We can’t understand it! It isn’t rational let alone humane. Lack of rationality is the reason for the killing of Mr. Wallace. I believe the shooting was based in emotion and biology.

In an earlier post, I cited research done by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Firing a gun at another human being produces trauma in the shooter. It’s not like it is portrayed in the movies.

Officer McNesby, President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, says that as well when he was interviewed shortly after Walter Wallace died. His officers are traumatized by firing a gun at another person.

What else is going on? You have to pay attention when Oprah selects a book and says that “it is the best book that she has ever read”, and then proceeds to send it to leaders across the land including CEO(s) of Fortune 500 Companies, owners of professional sports teams, and anyone else that she could think of.

The book that she chose was Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. If you are only going to read one book on racial issues, this should be it. Wilkerson offers a view that makes sense of the origins of racism. It is about caste, not class. She alludes to a possible solution for all of this killing of black people as well.

The solution is understanding the biology of racial interactions and interracial encounters with a shared purpose.

Wilkerson states in her book, Caste, “People perceive the people of a different ethnicity as a threat, even in a safe laboratory setting. The threat they perceived as a result of their prejudice produced automatic physical responses as would occur if they were in combat or confronting an oncoming car – restricted blood flow to the heart, the flooding of the muscles with glucose as the body releases cortisol, the hormone useful in the rare moment when one might need to escape danger, but damaging to the body on a regular basis.”

“Even the briefest exposure is all it takes to activate the body’s response. Among whites, the sight of a black person, even in faded yearbook photographs, can trigger the amygdala of the brain to perceive threat and arm itself for vigilance within 30 milliseconds of exposure, the blink of an eye, researchers have found. When whites have a bit more time for the conscious mind to override the automatic feeling of threat, the amygdala activity switches to inhibition mode. When whites are prompted to think of the black person as an individual, imagine their personal characteristics, the threat level falls.” (Caste, pp.304-305)

Wilkerson goes on to say that there are two interracial groups that don’t experience this “biology of fear”. They are sports teams and the military. Different races spend time together with a shared purpose. That is the answer.

We need more opportunities for races to mix with a shared goal. This is what occurs in Diversity Training. That is the thought behind police and community interactions to get to know one another. We know it works with sports teams and the military. Yes, it will take a lot of planning.

If this sounds too simple, what is the alternative?

I have always subscribed to the thought that once you spend time with someone who is different from you, you will be less likely to disrespect them in any way. That has been more than my thinking. It is my experience.

Right now biology is running too much of our crisis with racial strife. Bias that is unrecognized coupled with biological realities is a very dangerous combination. Let's get after it. Certainly Oprah has!

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