Moral outrage spread all over the globe at the death of George Floyd. As the dust settles, we are left to ask: how can we best combat racism? To this question, not all answers are created equal, for we cannot combat evil with evil, but need to ask how we can combat evil with good.

On the news after George Floyd’s death, a journalist asked a protester who had just helped to set fire to a store what the sense of this action was. The protester answered that it did not make sense, but that it was sending a message about how angry people are. Now, while emotions of outrage and anger are understandable and justified in this case, it is clear that the store owner is not to blame, and in the long term, setting fire to stores is not going to solve the issue of racism; it will rather perpetuate injustice. What, then, can we do for the future?

It seems to me that the best possible motive for combatting racism is love for others who are being unfairly treated. Love is something beautiful, but experience shows it can also have its downsides. To give an unrelated example, in a loving relationship love can turn possessive. In the other extreme, it can only be a passing sentiment. Someone may join a Black Lives Matter march, but not try to understand the causes of black disadvantage, or seek constructive solutions. That needs to be corrected by reason – not a cold reason, but a reason that works from love. Applying this to the issue at hand: how we can love in truth to solve racism?

Empathy and attention

Love takes many forms, but to counter racism important forms are empathy and attention. Not all behaviour that people may experience as racist involves violence; there can be small things in daily life that can be solved with a little care. For example, when someone enters a group as the only minority person, a little understanding for the situation, and consequent attention and welcoming can go a long way; it might even resolve the issue.

Challenges to empathy and attention may come from implicit bias against certain minority groups that people carry with them. It may also simply come from a lack of awareness of people in special need of attentiveness. A solution may come from meaningful interactions with people from the minority groups, to learn about and appreciate their way of being.

What the exact cause of a racist experience is, may be difficult to determine. That is true for small issues, but also for the larger ones, and this is exactly why we need to be careful to follow not only a loving but also a truthful approach. A first question when looking for truth in this instance is: what do we mean by racism?

I would like to distinguish three different types of racism: individual, systemic, and symbolic. For each, I would like to discuss when we can speak of this type of racism, and what we can do about it when it is encountered.

Individual racism

The racist individual is perhaps the first association most people have when hearing about racism. A racist individual is someone who harbors a negative prejudice against a particular group of people that leads to unfair treatment of individuals in that group. If a police officer has a negative prejudice against people of color and treats them more aggressively than other people, that is racist.

It follows from this definition, though, that not all bad actions against people in a particular minority are necessarily done by racist individuals. For example, a police officer that is generally cruel to everyone is a bad police officer and a cruel person, but not a racist, even if the officer also displays his cruelty to minorities.

To combat individual racism, calls to introspection and becoming aware of subconscious prejudices are helpful. After all, not all prejudice or bias is deliberate. It may come from a range of influences in a person’s past. Introspection becomes especially important when dealing in practice with people from minority groups that one feels prejudice towards. It is in these cases that racism can be overcome by consciously choosing to give that person fair treatment, treatment any other person would have received too. Giving people from minority groups an unfair advantage is equally racist. If the advantage is given to offset a real (not just perceived) disadvantage that the individual undergoes because of belonging to the minority, it can be considered a fair advantage and therefore not racist.

As this discussion illustrates, individual racism is not simple, and we should be careful about accusing an individual of racism if we do not want to fight injustice with injustice.

Systemic racism

In academia, much attention in recent years been given to systemic racism. This refers to structures of power that intentionally disadvantage a particular minority group. A paradigmatic example was the South African apartheid regime. Also racist would be the conscious refusal for racist motives to consider reasonable changes to a system that leads to inequalities in practice, even though the system was not conceived of as racist.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently pointed out that racial disparities can be “the product of something far less sinister, but sometimes equally damaging”, which he called “racial indifference”. This would be a lack of attention to systemic inequalities, not for racist motives, but out of negligence or lack of active interest in the issues that particular groups face.

Again, in some situations there may be factors other than race that explain a perceived racial bias. For example, all people of a certain socio-economic status may be affected by a measure, but if a minority is over-represented in that socio-economic segment of the population, they may be disproportionately affected. Not paying attention to the side-effects on that minority would be an example of racial indifference.

Combatting systemic racism requires reform, or in extreme cases overthrowal, of a system to correct any racist biases in its design. It also entails challenging the people in power that are clearly seen to work out of racist motives. Finally, racial indifference can be overcome by active attention to reasonable changes to a system that can dissipate systemic inequalities in practice.

Here a word of caution is necessary. We cannot reduce the results of human behavior to the design of the social systems in which people find themselves.  People have their own motives, thoughts, and freedom that also factor into the equation. As a result, a system that gives equal opportunity will not always see equal outcomes. Forcing equal outcomes can easily lead to a disrespect for people’s own choices. Therefore, systemic racism is not simple, and needs to be addressed carefully to do justice to the issue.

Symbolic racism

A last type of racism I want to tackle is symbolic racism. Symbolic racism occurs when people hold a particular person or symbol in esteem that honors racist ideology. They can be expressions of a racist system too. Veneration of the Nazi swastika is a prime example. Symbolic racism can be combatted by bringing an end to the honoring of racist symbols.

While symbolic racism sounds easy to understand in theory, it is particularly tricky in practice. For symbols do not always carry the meaning they stand for in themselves, and can have additional meanings projected on them. Because of the changing ways in which people view historical figures, it is a particularly easy activist strategy to project a racist meaning on a statue and then protest for it to be taken down. But this strategy does not generally do justice to the reality that the statue celebrates. Symbolic meanings need to be treated with more care, especially when projected onto living persons.

To give an example, I recently spoke to a student about the need for a loving yet reasonable approach to ending racism. When I said that projecting anger about something a US police officer does onto Dutch police doesn’t seem very reasonable, the student replied that there is still a point to it, because the Dutch police represent the racist system of western society. In consequence, Dutch police officers are in fact being made into a symbol of racism in the west.

Still, Dutch police are mostly known for their reasonable way of acting, and while there may have been shortcomings, their record seems significantly better than that of the US police. Making them into a symbol of racism does not seem just. As this example illustrates, projecting a symbolically racist meaning can easily be unjust. In extreme cases it can even constitute defamation. Here we see that symbolic racism needs to be treated with care, in order to not combat evil with evil.

In conclusion

The desire to combat racism is, in its best form, born of love. But love needs to be informed by reason, and we have seen how individual, systemic, and symbolic racism need to be addressed with care not to combat evil with evil, arriving at unjust solutions to injustices. The emotional push given by the moral outrage at racist behaviour can be a force for good, but only if it lets itself be guided by reason when finding solutions.

One of the areas in which the approach described above is especially important is in the issue of evaluating curricula for racist biases, the “decolonize the curriculum” movement. That application merits a separate article that I hope to publish over the coming weeks.

The author would like to acknowledge the help of friends and colleagues in drafting this article. Responsibility for the contents are solely his.

Daan van Schalkwijk

Daan van Schalkwijk writes from the Netherlands. He teaches biology at a university in Amsterdam and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence. He blogs at Science...