Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | How mobile phones could be mobilized against racism

Racial discrimination is a reality in the US despite much effort to mitigate it. A civil war has been fought, several mass protests have taken place, legislations have been passed, and hundreds of articles have been written to bring about racial equality. But the problem persists. Why? No doubt, it is deep-rooted. Cries for change on the streets are yet to make a sufficient impact on the minds of many a perpetrator.

No one chooses one’s race. One is born into it. The superiority one might feel of belonging to a particular race is not a result of one’s efforts, clearly. Then why should anyone cling on to perceived advantages that have come about purely by chance? If one belongs to a race that is erroneously considered inferior, there is nothing one can do to change it. So, racial pride is like a game in which the winner is decided even before it begins. Many people do not want to give up the joy of winning a game without playing it.

It is not easy to force an individual to cede free privileges that have been enjoyed for a long time. It’s also observed that any force deployed in a society tends to generate an opposing force. As US streets are filled with protesters who believe that “black lives matter" and statues of White supremacists are pulled down, many biased Caucasians seem to be feeling scared. Studies have shown people tend to hold on strongly to their racial biases when they feel threatened by an out-group.

How do we get Caucasians to voluntarily give up the privileges that have accrued to them because of their race credentials? Better still, how do we get more Caucasians to intercede on behalf of their fellow citizens of other races? Such behavioural shifts have to come from within individuals. They cannot be forced from outside.

In Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Susan Neiman shows how Germany’s schools and intellectuals, its ordinary people and politicians worked “to acknowledge the evils their nation committed". This provides a perspective on how a whole country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. Germany’s example can help US in its ever-ongoing attempt to confront the legacy of slavery and racism. German streets do not have statues of Nazi generals. National memorials only commemorate those who were murdered in the Holocaust. Auschwitz will always be a reminder of a past one should never forget. According to Neiman, Germany used a strategy of working through the past, mastering it, and then overcoming it. How can a similar strategy be deployed in the US to end the scourge of racism?

Niami’s book speaks about “Faces of Emmett Till", reliving the memory of a Chicago schoolboy who in 1955 was murdered after he supposedly whistled at a Caucasian woman in the hamlet of Money, Mississippi.

His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on leaving his body untouched and casket open, so that everyone could see what was left of the child’s face after hours of vicious torture. Anyone who has seen even a photograph of that face cannot ignore the horrors of racism.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018. Known as the “lynching memorial", it was created in honour of those who suffered the terror of racial lynching. The point of a memorial to the horrors of slavery in Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederacy, was to draw the world’s conscience to the epicentre of the problem. Journalist Walter Lippmann, who coined the term “stereotypes", once said, “History is the antiseptic that can disinfect the stain of stereotypes by allowing us to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them."

In a New York Times op-ed, ‘What if There Were No George Floyd Video?’, Nicholas Kristof wrote that there would have been a bland statement that he had died resisting arrest, and none of us would have heard of him. Instead, the video captured a modern lynching. Its horror has ignited protests worldwide.

These vivid images of racism have catalytic powers. We should have more such images that stir up society. Such vivid evidence of the horrors of it could help generate anguished conversations among the biased. Studies have shown that having multiple conversations about a problem serves as a deterrent, holding people back from adding to that problem. This process of behaviour-change happens within the individual, and usually within an in-group. This inner churn needs to be set off for perpetrators of racism to stop in their tracks.

Some change is already visible in the racial composition of the protest marches after George Floyd’s murder. Research by Dana R. Fisher of the University of Maryland and Michael T. Heaney of the University of Michigan shows that Caucasian protesters made up as many as 61% of those surveyed in New York, 53% of those in Los Angeles, and 65% of those in Washington. It is also gratifying to know that more than three-quarters of those surveyed were under the age of 34, and 82% of Caucasian protesters had a college degree. What can accelerate this change?

There is a mobile phone in everyone’s hand. This dramatically raises the chance of yet another racial injustice being captured on camera. The irrefutable evidence of these recordings should stir the minds of the biased. The scourge of racism has survived some of the most intense public protests. But I doubt that it can survive the stark vividity of mobile phone videos for very long.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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