Do Neurons Hold the Key to Understanding Racism in Society?

The common wisdom is that the United States is now enjoying a ‘post-racial’ era. So strong is this view that it is presently being employed to justify efforts to roll back the Voting Rights Act and to end affirmative action programs. Nonetheless, it is a myth. Let’s set the record straight: almost every serious academic study reveals racism to be alive and well in the United States. Indeed, prejudice towards blacks by whites actually has increased in recent years according to a 2012 study by scholars from Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. This commentary examines some evidence of this situation and argues that is it not irremediable. I do this by adopting an interdisciplinary approach to understand racism in society while drawing on recent findings of cognitive science. I argue that some whites are intentionally seeking to maintain their privilege in society by strategically popularizing belief in a black pathology while simultaneously promoting the idea that America is a post-racial society.

One might want to remove oneself from the discussion in these sorts of arguments; ‘I am not so easily manipulated’ you might say. Consider then NOT thinking about an elephant, when the idea of that animal is introduced. Really, try doing it. As it turns out, you cannot and that is because 98 percent of thought is not conscious and is more reflexive than reflective, according to George Lakoff, a well-known cognitive scientist. Neural modeling has revealed that the brain creates event structures or executing schemas to understand the world in terms of what the body can do. These frames exist as narratives with both an intellectual and an emotive content facilitated by neural binding circuitry. For example, there is an established frame in the United States and England for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (the Horatio Alger myth). Parents, teachers, and the media reinforce this narrative with no corresponding contrasting dominant frame for those who work hard, but are nonetheless not able to achieve financial independence due to a myriad of structural forces beyond their control (Lakoff 2008). Racial frames in this country are similarly potent and have a long history, with the earliest claiming the biological inferiority of blacks. This contention has fortunately been debunked, but it has meanwhile been replaced with a frame that suggests blacks are culturally inferior. Other narratives simultaneously facilitate the minimization and masking of racism. Let us start with the latter.

Recording artist Kanye West famously called President George W. Bush a racist in 2005 and in his memoir, Bush later referred to the incident as the worst moment of his presidency. Bush was outraged because he perceived that he held no particular ill will toward blacks. This outlook defines (and minimizes) racism as antagonism or as isolated incidents of discrimination. Meanwhile, scholars such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2001) have argued that racism is better conceptualized in structural terms. Doing so allows analysts to identify racialized social systems in which groups participate as either beneficiaries or subordinates. When so viewed, it becomes clear that the interest of the dominant group lies in preserving the status quo. Princeton University Professor emeritus Cornel West argued on the radio show, Democracy Now, in November 2010 that Kanye West was right: “His (Bush’s) policies were racist in effect and consequence.” Cornel West’s central point was that when racism is embedded in everyday life it becomes invisible.

There is perhaps no more powerful frame in such terms today than that of the cultural inferiority of blacks. Older readers might recall President Ronald Reagan’s unfounded claim about a Cadillac-driving black welfare queen. The president employed such rhetoric to attack social insurance programs that supported the poor. Similarly, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) along with colleagues from both sides of the aisle during a debate on welfare policy that ultimately resulted in the removal of an entitlement to support for the indigent (Cong. Rec. 1996, S8076) chastised poor, African-American teen-aged girls who purportedly wound up on welfare after having illegitimate children. Studies from the period, however, revealed that 69 percent of all non-marital births occurred to older women, not teens, and that 70 percent of all teen births were to white women (Sparks, 2003). Dorgan’s remarks nonetheless reinforced the ‘immoral blacks on welfare’ frame to which President Reagan had given voice. The media plays a role in supporting these narrative myths through what Jan Pieterse (1995) has referred to as the social rhetoric of images. This argument underscores the point that it is difficult to use facts to dislodge the frame of blacks as culturally inferior and a dangerous “other.”  The outcome is glaring.

Studies reveal that when a “white” neighborhood reaches 7 percent black, a massive white exodus often ensues. Blacks charged with the murder of a white victim receive the death penalty more than any other combination of crime and race (Bonilla-Silva, 2001). Teachers are trained to avoid race-based bias, yet Parks and Kennedy (2007) have tested the views that a sample of teachers held on beauty and competence, based on race. Their analysis showed that teachers considered black, ‘unattractive’ children (both boys and girls) less competent than youngsters in other categories. In sum, these frames are powerful, resilient and often operate subconsciously to ensure that those being ‘othered’ remain in their assigned social place.

This resilience of views and norms explains why efforts to eliminate misinformation with facts have not yielded rapid and desired results. While the process of changing social frames is difficult, Lakoff has argued that they can indeed be supplanted as the brain responds at an intellectual and emotional level to empathy. Halpern and Weinstein (2004) have similarly suggested that, “empathy serves as a normative ideal for a rehumanized view of the other.” Rosenberg has defined empathy as “feeling an emotion that is similar to the emotion that another feels because the other feels it” (Rosenberg 1990:8). Where racial frames keep people separated empathy reconnects them by ensuring that whites not only become aware of but also feel the impact of racism. That awareness may lead them to act differently. Several studies have demonstrated the impact of evidencing and experiencing more or less empathy. Edgar C. J. Long et al. (1999) have shown that marriages are more likely to be stable when the couple expresses empathy for one another while Arsenio and Lemerise (2004) have argued that psychopathy and bullying arise from a lack of empathy.

We may have greater confidence in the power of empathy since neurophysiological research has found that there is a shared representational network in all human beings. Scientists first recognized this phenomenon in monkeys, as the ‘mirror neurons’ in the animal’s ventral premotor cortex were found to discharge both during the execution of goal-directed hand movements and when the monkey observed similar hand actions by another being (Rizzolatti et al. 1996). Other studies in humans have demonstrated that children come to understand that others are similar to them through imitating them. Meltzoff and Moore found that at 42 minutes old babies can imitate facial expressions which suggests that this ability comes preprogrammed in all human beings (1983, 1989). On this basis, Decety (2006) has surmised that people have the ability to match each other’s perspectives mentally, the essence of empathy.

These experiments imply that the tendency to imitate is strongest during social interaction. “If the person performing actions is making eye contact with us, strong neural activation is elicited by the movement. But if the person acting has their back to us, their movements elicit very little activity” (Kilner et al. 2006). Researchers have seen a similar increase in pro-social behavior after being mimicked, such as a higher likelihood of contributing to charity for example (van Baaren et al. 2004). Further research is needed to unlock precisely how empathy can re-frame social interaction, but such an effort seems likely to bear fruit. Finally, this research on mirroring suggests that diversity education should include a focus on interactions between members of different racial groups, and at all ages. The active exercise of empathy, coupled with continuing efforts to promote the facts of social conditions provides hope for a shift in unjust racial frames over time.



Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001). White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Lynne Rienner Pub.

Decety, J. & Jackson, P. (Apr., 2006). A Social-Neuroscience Perspective on Empathy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 15, No. 2. pp. 54-58

Democracy Now (November 19. 2010). Cornel West on Charles Rangel, Bush & Kanye West, and Why Obama Admin “Seems to Have Very Little Concern for Poor. Retrieved from:

Engberg, M, E., (Winter, 2004). Improving Intergroup Relations in Higher Education: A Critical Examination of the Influence of Educational Interventions on Racial Bias. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 473-524

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Halpern, J. & Weinstein, H. (Aug., 2004). Rehumanizing the Other: Empathy and Reconciliation. Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3. pp. 561-583

Lakoff, G. (2008). The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. Viking Adult.

Meltzoff, A & Decety, J. (Mar. 29, 2003). What Imitation Tells Us about Social Cognition: A Rapprochement between Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 358, No. 1431, Decoding, Imitating and Influencing the Actions of Others: The Mechanisms of Social Interaction. pp. 491-500

Parks, F. R. & Kennedy, J. H. (Jul., 2007). The Impact of Race, Physical Attractiveness, and Gender on Education Majors’ and Teachers’ Perceptions of Student Competence. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 6, pp. 936-943

Pasek, J., Krosnick, J. & Tompson, T. (2012). The Impact of Anti-Black Racism on Approval of Barack Obama’s Job Performance and on Voting in the 2012 Presidential Election. Retrieved from:

Pieterse, J. N. (1995). White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. Yale University Press.

Snow, N. (Jan., 2000). Empathy. American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 65-78.

Sparks, H. Queens Teens and Model Mothers: Race Gender and the Discourse of Welfare Reform. In Schram, S. F., Soss, J., & Fording, R. C. (2003). Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform. University of Michigan Press.

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Marc received a B.A. in History and Archaeology and a M.Sc. in Government (Political Theory and Comparative Politics) from the University of the West Indies. He also holds a M.A. in History from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) where he is currently enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program. His dissertation unpacks participatory democracy in Jamaica but past research topics have explored race, identity and issues of power. He has worked his entire adult life in youth and community development as well as academia.  He presently teaches Political Science Research Methods but has taught a variety of history and political science courses over the last eight years. Even with teaching and working on his dissertation he finds time for service which included various duties as a Diversity Scholar and Humanities Fellow. Marc is also a 2012 Science in Society Graduate Scholar.

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