By Rob Roper
Many news stories and opinion pieces in the Vermont media are opining about a rise in racism around our state and perhaps the country. In fact, you can’t turn on the news these days without hearing the term “white nationalism” 10 times in five minutes.
Our attorney general, TJ Donovan, just took part in a Hate-Free Vermont forum in Rutland, one of a five-part series being held around the state. Gov. Phil Scott just appointed Vermont’s first “executive director of racial equity” who will “work with state government agencies and departments to identify and address systemic racial disparities.” Schools from elementary to college are routinely protesting or making us “woke” to the ubiquity racial injustice.
So, what’s the result of all of this? Studies in behavioral economics can give us some insights, and, if there really is an uptick in racism it’s probably because of, not in spite of, all the activity outlined above.
Professor Robert Cialdini did an interesting study in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. At the time, visitors were stealing pieces of petrified wood as souvenirs, and officials needed this practice to stop or it would do irreparable harm to the park. So, Cialdini’s team tried different advertising messages on visitors to see what could reduce the behavior.
The first campaign warned, “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” It had quite an impact. The percentage of park visitors stealing wood jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent — a nearly 60 percent increase.
Why? Because informing the public that lots of people who visit the park steal petrified wood had the effect of normalizing the behavior. Even though the behavior was clearly considered bad, if “everybody’s doing it,” then psychologically speaking, it becomes socially acceptable.
The campaign that succeeded in reducing the removal of petrified wood portrayed the thieves as lone actors and social outcasts.
So, if we apply this lesson to solving the problem of racism, creating the impression that racism is everywhere and everyone’s a racist and racism is on the rise is probably about the worst possible thing one could do. This is the proverbial throwing of gasoline onto the fire.
If you really want to reduce racism, the way to approach the issue is to portray racists as few, far between, socially isolated and laughable. And this shouldn’t be hard to do. The actual number of KKK members, neo-Nazis, etc. is, thankfully, incredibly small. Recall that the Unite the Right rally on the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville attracted 20 or 30 kooks from around the country whereas thousands came out to protest against them.
To solve the problem, that’s the story (and those like it) to emphasize.
Only if your objective is to stoke racial tensions and exploit fear while appearing to oppose racism for political purposes, or to sell newspapers or air time, or to fundraise, should you keep pushing the narrative that the 20 nuts who showed up in Charlottesville have become a national army of bigots poised to take over the world.