Sunday, August 9, 2020

Racism is a Crisis of Public Education, not Public Health

On August 7, 2020 Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer declared that racism is a public health crisis and signed a bill requiring state employees to undergo “bias training” as a corrective.[1]  

Governor Whitmer is not the first to use the words “public health crisis” when discussing racism and systemic racism.  Several other state governors, public health organizations, city councils, state legislators, news reporters and opinion columnists have used the same or similar words.[2]

I believe that this is a mistake.  Racism and systemic racism certainly qualify as crises that affected large populations for hundreds of years. Minority communities targeted by racist attitudes and behavior have long been “in crisis.” They have experienced and continue to experience long, unbroken periods of great difficulty, danger and suffering.  If this is what is meant by the words “racism is a public health crisis,” then I have no grounds to disagree. 

But this does not  imply that the racists and racist institutions that are the cause of the terrible effects of racism should be classified as a public health problem.   If the primary charge of public health organizations is to prevent the spread of disease and deliver therapy to those who are ill, then there are no good grounds for saying that what racists need is therapy or that systemic racism should be rooted out and “cured” by public health officials. 

Let me explain.  A "health intervention or response" to a public health crisis is a response to illness, sickness, disease, unhealthiness or unsoundness.  If the health crisis is ‘public’ then the illness affects humans in one or more geographic areas, confined to one locale, a particular state or country, or all areas on earth.  Public health crises in the past include Spanish flu (1918), H5N1 (bird flu, 2004), HIV/AIDS (1981-), SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, 2002), and several diseases (such as cancer) caused by ingestion of, use of or exposure to toxic products (for example, Thalidomide, DDT, asbestos, nicotine). 

We now have another example of a public health crisis that is having an unwelcome devastating effect on almost all countries on earth: The Novel Coronavirus Disease, COVID-19, which was declared a 'pandemic' by the World Health Organization on Mach 11, 2020.  

1. Definitions
Since the question is whether racism and systemic racism should be classified as a public health crises, the first step is to put forward relevant definitions.

‘Racism’ means “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” A second, simpler definition is “racial prejudice or discrimination” (Merriam Webster). 

‘Systemic racism’ is “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles” (MW).  A stronger definition recently offered by a graduate student says that systemic racism is "prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color” (Hauser, New York Times 10 June 2020).

2. Framing an analogical argument
The second step is to create an analogy between known public health crises and systemic racism.  In the case of the current pandemic, there is a useful distinction between the disease name, the symptoms, and the causes of the disease:

(a) Disease name: COVID-19
(b) Symptoms:  Fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle, and body aches, etc.
(c) Cause of the symptoms: SARS-cv2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

If racism is a candidate for public therapy, then we should be able to make similar classifications for systemic racism.  This is not an easy task. Using (a) - (c)  as my guide, here is the best I can offer:  
(a¹) Disease name: Systemic racism. 
(b¹) Symptoms: Unjust legislation, practices and protocols regarding minority communities (e.g., creating  laws that require public schools to be segregated by race; sentencing Black persons to longer jail terms than White persons for committing identical offense; arresting substantially more Black people than White for committing identical offenses). 
(c¹) Cause(s) of the symptomsPersonal prejudice and an ideological and dominant culture which rationalizes and justifies their superior position (Zatz, Mann and Coramae, p. 3)[3].

3. Problems with the analogy
I submit that the two sets of classifications (above) are not sufficiently similar for the purpose of qualifying systemic racism as an illness or disease.

First, the symptoms named in (b) are not voluntary.  The sick persons who suffer from COVID-19 do not choose to have a fever and shortness of breath.  Fatigue and fever are physical conditions that one undergoes not something one does. The person who suffers cannot control the causal connection between disease and symptoms of the disease.  Attempts can be made by a medical staff to mitigate the severity of the symptoms but the symptoms themselves are beyond the control of the patient.

But the so-called symptoms named in (b¹) are voluntary.  Legislators in the southern states who created and voted for Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century did not do so because they had no control over their prejudices.  We do not think of these racist legislators as ‘sufferers’ or ‘victims’ of a disease. 
Second, it is a category mistake to call a belief or opinion a ‘symptom’.  The relationship between a disease and the symptoms of the disease is that of cause and effect.  As argued by Plato 2,400 year ago, the relationship between beliefs and behavior is not one of cause and effect, but a relationship of reason to action (Phaedo, 95a – 105a).[4] If it is believed by White racists that Black persons are inferior to White persons, this a reason for not a cause of their racist behavior.  A prejudiced opinion about the natural superiority of White people is a reason for creating and voting for a Jim Crow law, not a cause of these acts.  If legislators are asked “Why did you vote for that bill?” they would answer “Because it prohibits Black people and other inferior minorities from using public toilets designated for their superiors” not “I couldn’t help it. My beliefs made me do it.”

 4. Five unwelcome consequences of classifying systemic racism as a disease
If we insist on using the disease model for racism and systemic racism, then the institutions of social control will respond with therapy as the appropriate response to these so-called diseases.  “The logic of sickness implies the logic of therapy.” (Morris, 382[5]).   Here are five implications. 

4.1 No fault responses.  If racists and the cultures in which they reside are believed to be sick, then therapists will say that they are not at fault for their racist behavior. Their behavior is only a manifestation of a mental illness that is beyond their control. If we do not blame corona-virus victims for being fatigued, running a high fever and coughing , then so we must not blame racists for their overt racist behavior.

4.2 Compassionate and beneficent responses.  Therapy implies that one must make a compassionate response to racism, not anger or accusations.  Therapists only see people as suffering and their response is to do whatever will relieve the pain. The compassionate response to the disease of systemic racism is to quarantine racists when there is a threat that they might spread the disease and attempt to find and administer a cure of the disease from which the racist is suffering.

4.3 No proportionality of cure to behavior. “With therapy, attempts at proportionality make no sense.” (id., 484)  Proportionality of a response belongs to the logic of punishment, not the logic of therapy.  The doctors who treat corona-virus victims might treat identical patients for a week or several months before they dismiss them, depending on the status of their health, not on how much they might have harmed others by infecting them. By analogy, it would be permissible to force feed one racist with anti-racist pills and let him go home after one week while confining another to a mental asylum for a lifetime.

4.4  No reason to wait for therapeutic intervention. “In a system motivated solely by a preventive and curative ideology there would be less reason to wait until symptoms manifest themselves in socially harmful conduct” (id., 485).  If a person has symptoms of COVID-19, then the strong desire of therapists is to prevent that person from spreading the disease to others and to treat the disease with hospitalization if necessary. By analogy, if racist conduct is construed as a symptom of an underlying disease, then there is no good reason to wait until the racist harms others.  
4.5 Derogation in status of protests not to be treated.  Those persons who are found to have a disease might not want to submit to a cure for their disease, if a cure is available.  If a preventative is developed in the form of a pill or vaccine,  then they might not want to take it.   Their protest might be listened to but regarded as signs of a selfish concern for themselves rather than a concern for the health of others. 

5.  Alternative responses to racism and systemic racism
I began this short essay with a news report about Governor Whitmer's promotion of a bill requiring public employees to take courses in ‘bias training’.  She and other governors either assume that bias training is a therapeutic response to racism, or they see the public health system as having education as one of their responses to public health crises. 

If bias training is a type of therapy, then racists should be regarded as people who cannot help their racist beliefs and attitudes.  This has all of the unwelcome consequences I have outlined earlier (4.1 – 4.5).  
If the public health system uses education instead of therapy as a response, then I would have no complaint about this, as long as enrollment is voluntary and the educators do not cross the boundary between teaching and brainwashing.[6]   

Governor Whitmer’s bill requiring state employees to undergo bias training is a matter of education, not therapy.  To respond to bias with education is to assume that appeals to reason will lead to the elimination of bias.  Even if state employees are required to attend bias classes, it is up to them whether they will receive anti-bias education with an open mind and eventually change their minds about what they believe and how they will act in the future.

The right to be treated as persons implies that there should be no impediment to racists (and sexists, heterosexists, ageists) making their own choices about whether they want to cling to their racist views, attitudes and behavior or to give them up.  They have the right to freedom of thought and expression as long as they do not harm or otherwise violate the equal rights of others. If racists are made aware of the importance of equal rights under the law as they enter into rational discussions of  the moral foundations of constitutional democracy then perhaps racist behavior and institutional racism will finally become  relics of the past.
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[1] https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/08/05/racism-michigan-governor-gretchen-whitmer-public-health-crisis/3297123001/
[2] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/06/15/racism-is-a-public-health-crisis-say-cities-and-counties
[3] 1999.  “Images of Color, Images of Crime: Readings.” Crime, Law and Social Change 32, 279–281 https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008328019994
[4] Socrates is portrayed by Plato as sitting in jail waiting for the executioner to appear.  Socrates tells his friend Cebes that if  the philosopher Anaxagoras was asked “Why is Socrates sitting in jail?” he would give a mechanistic account of the position of Socrates’ bones and muscles.  Anaxagoras mistakenly takes the question to be about the cause of Socrates’ sitting position instead of being about Socrates’ reason for sitting, which has already been answered (“I am waiting for the executioner to appear”).
[5] Most of the observations in this section about the definition and implications of therapeutic interventions are taken from Herbert Morris’ groundbreaking journal article “Persons and Punishment”. (FYI - Professor Morris was my mentor and dissertation director at UCLA in the mid-1960s.  He is 92, in good health and still writing books and essays on philosophy, arts and literature).
[6] There is a contemporary event that stands as a powerful example of how some ‘therapists’ are attempting to cure their patients by changing the beliefs and attitudes of the entire cultural group to which they belong, with the aim of wiping out their identity. The cultural  group is the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and the therapists are agents of the Chinese government.  A leaked memo obtained by BBC News says that thousands of Uighurs are being detained in prison camps and are “subject at least to psychological torture because they literally don't know how long they're going to be there… [D]etainees will only be released when they can demonstrate they have transformed their behavior, beliefs and language.” (https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cpz1y9ney3mt/uighurs )


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