Record numbers of Americans recognize racism as a problem. What could the solution be like?

Thoughts from Assistant Dean Heather Caruso
Assistant Dean Heather Caruso

Heather M. Caruso, Ph.D., is UCLA Anderson’s assistant dean of  equity, diversity and inclusion and is an adjunct assistant professor in Anderson’s Management and Organizations and Behavioral Decision Making areas.

Record numbers of Americans recognize racism as a problem. What could the solution be like?

A concrete solution to America's problem with racism is not obvious. Although a majority of Americans recognize the problem as significant, many are relatively new to this point of view. It's also not clear that we can even fully define the problem, with its scope and scale stretching across so much of this country's history, culture, and institutions. America’s problem with racism shows up in problems with education, policing, health care, and more.

We need not, however, wait to fully understand the racism problem before we begin to think about what an authentically inclusive solution could look like. Indeed, working backwards from a solution may be a great way of making specific aspects of the problem more visible and tractable: Once we have a concrete vision of what better days could look like, we can compare it with our view of the status quo. Where the status quo fails to live up to the vision, we can start scouting for the specific hindrances or blind spots that are most responsible for the gap. Having those concrete problems in view, we can find and design apt tools for dismantling obstacles and greasing the skids for equitable behavior. 

So, how do we think about what a racially inclusive society could be like? Of course, it will have a mind-boggling number and variety of features. Rather than try to address them all at once, it may be easier for each of us to start by describing the specific possibilities we are best positioned to see (consider, e.g., emerging examples from experts on policing). I am a behavioral scientist. The following gives you a few ideas for how I envision people in a racially inclusive society could behave.

  1. We would prize people who go out and get one another’s perspectives.

In envisioning a racially inclusive society, many may instinctively turn to a kind of color-blindness wherein race is simply not noticed, on the widely-popularized assumption that this would make it impossible to discriminate on the basis of race. A look at behavioral research, however, makes this assumption inviable. Noticing race happens so quickly (less than one-seventh of a second) that we cannot consciously control it. Even if we could, ignoring a person's race would obscure any legacy of race as an influence on their experiences--both for good and for bad. Even if one aspires to a future where race doesn't matter, one cannot escape the reality of race having mattered for generations past, shaping both disadvantage and privilege. Colorblindness cannot help any of us see the whole of our individual experiences. 

Rather than neglecting our race-related perspectives, an active practice of " perspective getting" could be much more useful to us. Knowing that people are often inaccurate when merely perspective taking (attempting to infer one another's perspectives), we would instead prioritize asking for one another's perspectives, or actually undergoing one another's experiences before characterizing our various points of view.

Perspective getting might be most valuable when we interview or start working with someone whose prior experiences have little overlap with ours. If we were led only by our basic impulses for social connection, we might seize too quickly on the first glimmer of common ground to declare reassuringly that we “know where they’re coming from,” and dwell too long on common ground to allow them to share other aspects of their backgrounds and perspectives. A perspective-getting focus would keep us from getting sidetracked by the common ground discussion, and instead keep in the mode of discovering the person we’re with and how they see the world. 

With experience and expertise in the perspective getting process, we would cut the insurmountable challenge of "knowing our audience" of 7+ billion fellow humans down to manageable size. We know that no amount of cultural awareness training or pre-reading will guarantee accuracy in anticipating all of our possible companions' perspectives. Skilled perspective getting would allow us to improve our accuracy in real time, getting information "straight from the source" whenever it is available.

  1. We would prize people who contribute their perspectives to dialogue.

Take a moment to think about how many times someone has invoked the words of a civil rights leader like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., even just in recent years. Think of all the conversations, the books, the interviews, the commencement speeches. These must number in the hundreds of thousands. Now imagine that Dr. King himself had to actually speak his words those thousands of times to each of those different audiences, over and over again. How would he feel?

Reminding yourself of that thought experiment might help if you are just undertaking conversations about race and racism, and find yourself surprised to hear those with more experience (e.g., longtime diversity advocates, racism scholars, or even just your more race-conscious colleagues) say that they are tired of talking. Your surprise may fade if you find out how long, how earnestly, and how fruitlessly many such speakers have already been talking, offering everything from their personal concepts of racial identity to the myriad thoughts, impressions, and experiences that feel connected to it.

Thankfully, some of the people we want to hear from have recorded their perspectives in articles, books, videos, and other media we can readily absorb and share. However, our racially inclusive society could facilitate more and better real-time exchanges by making them more reliably rewarding.

For example, those with track records of contributing to these conversations might receive higher ratings when hiring or promotional committees evaluate each employee’s organizational service. These might be colleagues who proactively organize and volunteer to speak in company brown bag lunches about marginalized perspectives, who offer to start and moderate discussions in an anti-racist reading club, or even those who have regularly modeled and inspired courageous, constructive race-related dialogue. In a racially inclusive organization, it would be natural to formally recognize those who help the firm appropriately address the significance of race for its workforce. 

More informal rewards might also be essential. We all speak hoping to be heard, but too often we don't get the satisfaction of knowing that it is actually happening. We may get eye contact and nods of acknowledgment, but accumulating evidence suggests that our messages often don't get through. With a topic as complex and multidimensional as race,  skillful listening (e.g., grounding questions in a speaker's comments; restating issues to confirm understanding) could go a long way toward inspiring more free-flowing and constructive exchanges of perspective.

  1. We curate our environments to keep our biases in check.

Far more than any other species, we humans can actively design our environments to suit our interests. From  playlists to plazas, we can--and do--surround one another with powerful symbols and images that can "put ideas in our heads." Where would marketing specialists be if they couldn't? The trouble is, we aren't always thinking about this power when we put certain images in place (and neglect other images). Instead, we may simply reach for the images that we're most familiar with, those that most readily resonate with us, or those that are easiest for us to access. When this happens, we load up our environments with cues and reminders of our existing beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge bases, not of the many unfamiliar frontiers we have yet to explore. In this way, we end up embedding bias in our environments that can subtly influence our own judgments and behaviors. 

Recognizing that environmental cues will always be seeding thoughts in our heads, it becomes clear that avoidance of offensive or stereotypical seeds would not be enough for our racially inclusive community to rest easy. Where historical inequities have already instilled and nurtured stiflingly inaccurate views of racial groups in our minds, new seeds would be planted, and old ones would be deliberately neglected. In our magazine covers, ad campaigns, movies, public art, and elsewhere, curated images and symbols would afford more balanced impressions of our equal potential as human beings, whether for beauty, crime, care, need, leadership, or anything else. 

  1. We believe that people change.

A racially inclusive society would be hard to achieve--much less sustain--under the belief that people and their prejudices can't change. Given the unabashed racism expressed over so much of this nation's early history, such a belief would foster distrust and disbelief of any new commitment to racial equity. This would be both unfounded and unhelpful. Indeed, pessimism about everyone’s ability to change could promote stereotypic judgment, dismissals of feedback about bias, disengagement from interactions where race is salient, and  neglect of opportunities to improve problematic interracial interactions. 

Our biases--racial and otherwise--can and do change, and there is encouraging evidence that we may dismantle many stereotypes if we create a society with racial diversity in all jobs and social roles. This doesn't, however, mean that new stereotypes won’t arise, especially given how quickly and continuously they can form absent our conscious awareness. In remembering that people can change, however, our racially inclusive society gains an advantage in preventing those stereotypes from hardening into structural barriers. History books and polls on belief change will help keep the malleability of belief salient, but it may be most powerful to highlight the stories of those who have undergone or observed a change in belief—say, with family members eventually embracing one’s interracial marriage. With information and role models reminding us that belief change is possible, it would be easier for each of us to readily seek and embrace revelation of any stereotypes we are forming, and better engage keen observers in dispelling or debilitating them.

  1. We expect and plan for mistakes.

As great as our vision of a racially inclusive society might be, it can't be sustainable if we don't expect and conscientiously plan for human error. Too many drivers of racial prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination influence us before we can consciously control them. Even if they didn’t, controlling them would take more mental bandwidth than any human can offer. Certainly, we should deliberately avoid mistakes and minimize harm as much as we can, but doing all of the (above) work needed to support our racially inclusive experiences will inevitably call for some guesswork, some subjectivity, and some judgments under time pressure or other suboptimal conditions. It would be unrealistic to expect perfection. Wary of such naiveté, we would expect that every one of us will occasionally misperceive, misspeak, and ignorantly offend.

Does expecting error mean condoning it? No. It would mean structuring interactions so as to recognize, repair, and limit the spread of damage as much as possible. These efforts would be especially valuable as diversity in each group, organization, or community increases, and as bandwidth for thoughtful speaking and listening decreases. Accordingly, we may better detect early signs of distress in our racially inclusive society after setting norms for more regular, and more genuinely curious check-ins with one another. Times of organizational uncertainty—e.g., when a merger is on the horizon and downstream cultural norms are unknown—would be especially good times for managers and colleagues to draw one another into conversation. Particular attention could be paid to surfacing the concerns and interests of historically marginalized group members, or others who may feel they are without the formal power and status to directly influence how they will be treated. Such attentiveness would support greater flexibility and resilience in our organizations, and could help us improvise appropriate responses to everyday mistakes before they get out of hand. For major missteps, our preparations could begin even earlier. In proactive discussions within teams, organizations, and communities, we could openly discuss problematic histories of behavior (e.g., hospital administrative teams could conduct roundtable discussions of substandard medical treatment for Black health care patients) and establish clear, consensual procedures for effective reporting, investigation, damage measurement, and repair downstream. Offenders could be given resources (e.g., individual education and coaching) for improving and shedding behaviors to align with standards. Further, we could establish criteria (e.g., a substantive track record of improved behavior under probation) for offering any return or continuation of privileges.

Let’s make it real where we are.

Racial inclusion cannot solve America’s race problem unless it shows up everywhere in our society. There are many ways to support the effort in communities where it may be most needed now, but it would be wasteful to neglect good opportunities to make it real wherever we are. 

The five features above can be present in many visions of a racially inclusive society, no matter where you are looking to make change. Still, they are far from the only, or perhaps even most vital, features. They are, nevertheless, the features my background, training, and current role help me to most clearly see and work toward.

From where you stand, what features of our racially inclusive future can you add to the list? If you’re a loan officer, can you map out the features of your racially inclusive loan application process? If you’re on hiring committees in your finance firm, can you envision more racially inclusive interview protocols? If you’re a developer in a gaming company, what would a racially inclusive catalogue of games look like? In academia, can we expand upon what I’ve described with racially inclusive recruiting, mentorship, and advancement procedures to diversify the ranks of our faculty, staff, and alumni?

…and keep in mind that this is a process.

As our visions of racially inclusive futures become clearer, so will the gaps between those visions and the status quo. Where we see these mismatches, we can start identifying possible barriers. For example, where people in our workplaces don’t seem to be comfortable with self-disclosure about race-related experiences, we might notice that even tiny efforts to do it are belittled, and they are never either informally or formally rewarded. By targeting these possible barriers for investigation, we can intervene to create new patterns of experience—perhaps by offering both time off and public gratitude to employees for actively contributing to company discussions about race. 

Of course, however clear our racially inclusive visions may be, we are unlikely to land on exactly the right set of interventions right away. The above process of discovery and experimentation will take time to close the gaps between our actual and ideal society, and as we know, mistakes will be made. If possible, therefore, it would be ideal to not only track the effects of our efforts (as measured against our expectations), but also to plan for iterative improvements, possibly ad infinitum. After all, just figuring out how to talk about race is bound to be a fraught and imperfect effort, even at the most basic level. What else can we expect from a made-up concept that has had such very real and enduring effects?

Still, envisioning the racially inclusive future we want to see can help us organize and focus our efforts to make sense of the morass. If you don't like the features I’ve described above, articulating your own preferences would do just as well--we aren't writing the final charter for our new society just yet. The main thing is to create a vision to help you sensibly experiment with concrete and accessible ways of making a racially inclusive society real where you are. That will be engaging in progress with the necessary courage, humility, and openness. That will be when we start to really see what a racially inclusive society looks like.

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