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The Pathology of Prejudice

What neuroscience tells us about the persistence of hatred

Driving around the part of Fresno, California, where Shannon Brown spent much of her life feels a bit like entering an alternate, more insular version of America, something out of an earlier time. We passed a white woman holding a baby in a driveway. An older white man worked in his yard. A white woman walked a dog. There didn’t appear to be a single person of color in the area, I said. That’s because there are none, Brown replied.

Brown, 48, is white, with blond hair, pale blue eyes, and milky skin. She wore a checkered black-and-white dress, a silver cross dangling from her neck. Brown had nothing against diversity, she explained. She was just accustomed to living among people who look like her—it’s the way she was raised. When she was growing up, her family discouraged Brown from associating with those people. “They definitely did not like black people. We never had black people over,” Brown said. “My family wasn’t overtly racist,” she said, but they weren’t going to befriend nonwhite people or welcome them into their home. Her family members, like many residents of this part of Fresno, are “polite racists,” Brown said, the kind of people who smile to your face if you’re a minority and call you a racial slur behind your back.

White power organizations are not uncommon in California—the state actually has the most active hate groups in the nation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center—but Brown’s family disapproved of their criminal behavior, if not their ideology. The racism that Brown grew up with was rooted in the belief, Brown said, that “We’re better than them.” They looked down on minorities but wouldn’t go so far as to use violence against them.

Still, for Brown, neo-Nazis were part of the social fabric of her California. They were her neighbors and acquaintances, people she would see from time to time, maybe even hang out with. One evening in 1996, when Brown was 26, she and a girlfriend from beauty school met up with a couple of guys they knew casually from around town. The four of them gathered at a local diner, and the men handed Brown and her friend blindfolds and invited them to get in their car. They were in the Ku Klux Klan, the men said, and they wanted to take Brown and her friend to a gathering at the secret “klavern,” a local KKK unit where the group held its meetings. This was new for Brown. “What’s a klavern?” she remembered asking. “We didn’t know what any of this stuff was.” But she liked hanging out with the guys, and she was intrigued, so she got in the car.

Brown remembered being driven around in what seemed like circles for a long time. “It’s a miracle we didn’t end up in an orchard dead somewhere,” she said. Finally they stopped, and the men led them into a house. Blindfolds removed, the women found themselves in a room of nearly two dozen skinheads, neo-Nazis, and men in white hoods, a mash-up of commingling white power factions. There was a pregnant woman in a grand robe, and a white power symbol was painted on the floor—a cross encircled in red. Brown wasn’t afraid or disgusted. Instead, she found it alluring and exciting.

As we drove around Fresno, Brown slowed to a stop in front of a pale-yellow one-story house adorned with yellow tulips, an American flag flapping on its solar-paneled roof. She pointed to the double-car garage. “That’s it,” Brown said. “That’s where the klavern used to be.

After that initial visit, Brown fell quickly and deeply into the KKK life. She started attending monthly gatherings at the house. Her family had always associated white power groups with criminality and violence, but Brown didn’t witness any of that. To her, it just meant belonging to a social circle of people who shared the same beliefs and values that she did. She even fell in love and married one of the men who first brought her to the klavern.

Together, Brown and her husband moved 125 miles south to Taft, California, near Bakersfield, a rural area, in a neighborhood far from any minorities. Her husband worked as a derrick hand on a drilling rig in the oil fields. He had two young kids from a previous relationship, and Brown helped raise them according to the hate group’s ideology, in a world where they performed the Nazi salute and sported t-shirts with slogans like the original boys n the hood. Children’s birthdays involved cakes decorated with swastikas and iron crosses. Watching television was rare, except for Little House on the Prairie.

Brown embraced the culture, abided by it. She was a housewife who quilted and cut hair. For fun, she practiced shooting guns, which were always around the house, with her family. At night, they occasionally attended cross burnings. She liked to listen to music from Johnny Rebel, a singer who rose to popularity among white supremacists in the 1960s and ’70s with songs like “In Coon Town” and “Ship Those N-----s Back.” In public, Brown was still a “polite racist” like the rest of her family in Fresno, but her husband, who proudly wore his white power tattoos, wouldn’t hesitate to verbally abuse minorities they encountered on the street—a habit that Brown said she found “embarrassing.” In private, however, racist views were expressed freely and openly. “Ring that bell, shout for joy, white man’s day is here,” Johnny Rebel sang on their stereo.

That life is all behind her now, Brown said. In 2000, she divorced her husband and cut ties with the Klan. Mainly, it was her husband’s abuse that prompted her to leave. He was violent and controlling, and she had tried escaping from him several times, but he tracked her down. Finally, she managed to get back to Fresno, where he hasn’t been able to locate her. If not for the abuse, Brown said, she probably would not have broken free from the Klan. “I left everything,” she said. “I basically had to start over.

For years, Brown didn’t talk much about her former life, and most people didn’t know about it—even her family wasn’t aware that she had joined the KKK. She found a job at a hair salon with diverse clients and staff, including African Americans, and she worried what they would think of her if they knew about the contempt for them she had harbored. She watched on the news as the same Klan members she’d once considered friends were arrested for hate crimes and unlawful possession of weapons, counting herself lucky not to be among them. And she has tried to atone for her racist past, speaking regularly to college classes and audiences at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles about her past experiences with the Klan.

Last year, Brown officially joined Life After Hate, a nonprofit organization founded by former white supremacists that works to help people leave extremist groups and start new lives. Groups such as Life After Hate have received increasing attention since Donald Trump’s election. Modeled after similar organizations in Sweden and Germany, they aim to teach tolerance and support former white supremacists in a kind of recovery process. “If you’re ready to leave hate and violence behind, we’re here to support you. No judgments, just help,” the Life After Hate web site declares. This involves breaking ties with hate group members, including loved ones, reintegrating into mainstream society, and trying to “unlearn” racism. Life After Hate received a $400,000 grant from the Obama administration to support its work—funding that the Trump administration stripped away in 2017.

The goal of stopping hate and helping former white supremacists lead more virtuous lives is certainly well intentioned, but there is reason to doubt the effectiveness of any initiative’s methods to reverse racism. Life After Hate, which formed as a nonprofit in 2011 and claims more than 30,000 supporters, says it has helped more than 100 people conquer their biases. Ending racism, it turns out, isn’t as simple as cutting personal ties or deciding to stop hating certain groups of people.

Shannon Brown, for example, admits that there are still things that “trigger” her prejudices: gay people, black people who listen to loud rap music, multiracial families. Something might set her off, and “I just trigger into that indoctrinated kind of mindset,” Brown said, her brain calling forth a racial slur, even though she knows that such thoughts are wrong. “I might just see something like an interracial couple, and it’ll flip and then flip back real fast,” Brown said. “Sometimes I can control it, and sometimes it’s just on impulse.

Hate is a powerful emotion that lodges itself deep within a person’s psyche. Indeed, a growing body of social, psychological, and neurological research suggests that once racial biases and hateful ideologies embed themselves in a person’s brain, they can be difficult—if not impossible—to counteract. This research suggests an uncomfortable reality: that ending racism isn’t something that can be achieved through a handful of counseling or therapy sessions, or anti-bias training. In addition to the efforts of organizations like Life After Hate, millions of dollars have been spent in recent years on high-profile anti-bias initiatives at companies including Starbucks, Facebook, and Google, as well as in police departments across the country. Yet there is little evidence that these efforts even work.

Spending time with Brown, I could sense her struggle to keep her biases in check. The Klan had taught her to despise any kind of racial mixing—particularly white people mixing with other races, which threatened the purity of the white race. When I told Brown that my husband is black, and so are my kids, she looked offended. Interracial relationships are still a significant trigger for her; the idea that it was forbidden to marry a black man was “pummeled into me,” she said. I could practically hear the Johnny Rebel lyrics echoing in her head. “Oh affirmative action, what’s this country coming to? Affirmative action, what’s the white man gonna do?”

I told Brown that I am also biracial; my mother is white. “I didn’t know you were mixed,” she said. “I assumed you were … you look Asian.”

“Does it matter?” I asked. Brown shook her head. “Just a surprise.” Outwardly, Brown kept her cool. But I imagined little pistons in her brain firing, synapses ablaze, racial epithets rushing to the tip of her tongue. Fighting the hatred inside her head can be exhausting, Brown said. Sometimes it’s just easier to let her old racist mindset reassert control. “Even 20 years later, it’ll flip the switch,” Brown said. “And it sounds terrible to say it, but it actually feels good.”

Scientists have been working for more than a century to understand how racism operates—and how it might be cured. The notion that biases can be identified and overcome connects with early theories about how racism manifests in the brain. From the 1920s to the 1950s, psychologists studying racism considered prejudice to be a psychopathology—“a dangerous aberration from normal thinking,” writes John Dovidio, a Yale University psychology professor, in the Journal of Social Issues. Psychologists employed personality tests to identify prejudiced people, with the hope of understanding how to treat them with psychotherapy, under the assumption that “if the problem, like a cancerous tumor, can be identified and removed or treated, the problem will be contained, and the rest of the system will be healthy.”

By the 1970s, however, psychologists had developed a new theory. An individual’s personality, character traits, and beliefs were predominantly influenced by the place in which she grew up and the people she was surrounded by—“nurture,” in other words, not “nature.” Racial prejudice was a societal ill, something learned through a lifetime of conditioning and exposure to hateful ideas—and therefore “normal”—and not a disorder that could be treated medically in any one individual.

Studies over the past two decades, however, have both clarified and complicated these ideas. Scientists now recognize that we are influenced by both our genes and our environments—the forces of nature and nurture work in tandem. On the one hand, stereotypes and prejudices are not innate. Racism is not simply an evolutionary reaction to an inherent human predisposition to be “tribal.” But there is a biological component to hatred and racism, which interacts with environmental factors. Studies show that growing up around people who espouse racist views—or even simply in an environment that lacks diversity—can contribute significantly to how a person interprets race.

“Our brains have evolved to be really sensitive to differences in our environments, to novel things,” said Jeni Kubota, a psychologist at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. “Those systems, because of the culture, have co-opted the processing of race.” The brain categorizes people very quickly—friend or foe, threat or non-threat—based on information it has learned, and if the brain makes its assessment using biased information, the results will reflect that bias. “Unfortunately, that leads to horrible inaccuracies and in some cases life-and-death consequences,” Kubota said. “So the system that’s really efficient in processing a lot of information can also lead to a lot of harm.”

New technologies have helped scientists understand more fully how the brain processes race. Advanced MRI scans have revealed that a network of brain regions associated with decision-making and emotional responses come into play when people assess someone’s race. One key area is the amygdala, which plays a role in controlling emotions, fear, and survival instincts, like the fight-or-flight response. When triggered by something considered a threat, neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, adrenaline, and dopamine are released into the amygdala. This process kicks the body into alert to protect itself. In scientific studies, white people have displayed increased amygdala activation in response to seeing black faces. These findings suggest that the study participants had developed negative stereotypes about African Americans, and their brains therefore categorized black people as threatening.

Another region of the brain involved in the processing of race is the prefrontal cortex, often referred to as the seat of executive function. It is here that moral behavior is regulated and controlled. Individuals with damage to this region have experienced sudden, dramatic personality shifts, like the famous case of Phineas Gage, who was working on a railroad construction site in 1848 when there was an explosion. An iron rod rammed through the frontal lobe of his brain. Gage survived, but this previously polite man suddenly became crass, offensive, and rude. Individuals with neurodegenerative diseases that affect their prefrontal cortexes have also experienced stark shifts in moral behavior, including lewd sexual conduct, trespassing, assault, theft, and even sudden drug dealing.

These cases have helped scientists understand how essential the prefrontal cortex is in filtering our behavioral choices, like not walking around naked, or stealing, or fighting, or telling someone that he is ugly or dumb. Many of us move through the world at times experiencing socially inappropriate feelings or urges, but we control how we react to them. Our healthy prefrontal cortexes regulate potentially embarrassing actions based on our impulses.

Neuroscience shows that ordinary people “recruit these brain regions when they’re interacting with people of other races,” Kubota said, “particularly if they have a motivation to not be prejudicial.” Individuals who believe in equality and fairness, or who are aware of their own biases, she explained, seem to be exercising a kind of self-control, evident in the prefrontal cortex, over their behavior—keeping prejudicial associations in check when they are thinking about or interacting with people of different races.

Angela King, the co-founder of Life After Hate, grew up in South Florida and became involved with a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads when she was 15 years old. She inked white power tattoos all over her body—a swastika on her middle finger, SIEG HEIL on the inside of her bottom lip—and talked about race wars while spreading hate propaganda. In 1998, when King was 23, she and some friends robbed a Jewish-owned store and assaulted the clerk. Weeks later, she was arrested, and the following year she was sentenced to six years in prison.

One day, while smoking a cigarette with her back against a wall, King noticed a Jamaican woman eyeing her. King thought she was going to start a fight with her. Instead, the woman asked, “Do you know how to play cribbage?” The woman sat down next to King and taught her how to play the card game. King became friends with her, as well as her black friends. They questioned King about her beliefs while simultaneously showing her compassion and love. “They were treating me like a human being,” King said. “It blew me away, because I didn’t feel like I deserved it, and I wasn’t expecting it. To receive that, it’s not something that you can ask for or would even know to ask for. It’s a gift like forgiveness, that when you get it, it changes everything.”

King was released in 2001, after serving three years of her sentence. “I knew I still had more changing to do,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be a different person, but I was absolutely horrified, because I was afraid that my brain was hardwired.” King had made friends across races. She had even fallen in love with a black woman in prison—finally accepting an aspect of her identity that she had hidden from her homophobic skinhead friends. Yet she still struggled to keep racist thoughts at bay. “No matter how many friends of color I made or how much interaction I had, I could see a person of color and my brain would automatically think a racial slur,” she said. “I was afraid that there was nothing that I could do myself to change it.”

Angela King struggled to rid her mind of hate; removing or covering her white power tattoos has similarly been a long and difficult process. The cat on her middle finger covers a swastika and SS lightning bolts. The Viking figures on her chest and Celtic cross on her calf—favored symbols of the far-right—have been partially removed by laser.

She was determined, however, and kept working on it. After prison, King earned a degree from the University of Central Florida, where she studied psychology, anthropology, and sociology, and learned about white privilege. “I literally walked around for the first few years talking to myself,” she said. “If I thought a racial slur or homophobic slur or felt a fear that was irrational, anything, I would literally stop myself and say, ‘OK, Angela, why did you think that?’” King said she eventually got to a point where she “was finally unwinding all of the garbage” in her mind.

Studies show that motivation contributes to how successful a person will be at keeping their prejudices in check. According to Jeni Kubota, if you deeply feel, “I’m a person who believes in fairness and equity,” and “It’s part of who I am at my core,” this internal motivation can help lead you to eliminate biases. But if a person’s desire to not be prejudiced stems from the feeling that “other people tell me that’s bad,” Kubota said, those external motivations are not usually enough to curtail or control prejudice. Without that internal motivation driving them, even people who actively try to be less biased will most likely fail.

Prejudices and biases “are rooted in longstanding, chronic, perpetual processes within the culture,” said Calvin Lai, the director of research at Harvard’s Project Implicit lab, which studies bias. If an individual has grown up in a racist culture, fighting against that current of hatred requires enormous mental determination.

Beyond her internal motivation, King also benefited from something else: meaningful contact with people of other races. The close relationships King formed in prison weren’t just the catalyst that motivated her to renounce racism; they provided an essential foundation for the entire process. According to Kubota, contact with people of different races has been shown to reduce bias in the brain considerably—but that contact has to be significant. “It can’t just be ‘put us all together in a school and we segregate and never talk to each other,’” Kubota said. That can actually reinforce biases. But researchers have found that having meaningful friendships, beloved mentors, or bonds with different people over long periods of time “can diminish these differences we see in the brain based on race,” Kubota said.

Angela King started Life After Hate with other former white supremacists because she wanted people like herself to know that they were not alone, and to offer them resources to help reintegrate into mainstream society—counseling, job training, mentoring, and peer support. “A person may really be struggling with alcohol addiction, or they’re dealing with criminal charges, or any number of things. So when it’s possible, we will actually travel to people to do face-to-face interventions,” King said. “Other times, it’s done virtually—Skype, phone calls, social media, any way that we can connect with people.” All of these things can play an important role in helping people break away from hate groups and get their lives back on track. But that doesn’t mean they’ve rid themselves of racist beliefs. King recognizes that the powerful transformation she experienced cannot be replicated easily. You cannot manufacture meaningful experiences for others, and you cannot force someone else to feel a strong motivation to change.

“Approaching someone out of the blue and just trying to talk someone out of their beliefs is not successful,” King acknowledged. “People don’t want to hear that they’re racist. They don’t want to hear that they’re part of a racist system, and that they are complicit in what is happening to their fellow human beings.” As much as King believes in working to end racism, there are days when she feels like it is impossible. “I honestly don’t know how we move beyond this, especially as we progress with technology,” she said. “It is so easy for people to be so connected and disconnected at the same time.”

It would be nice to believe that people leave extremist groups because they suddenly realize that their views are ugly, hurtful, and prone to cause violence. However, according to research by Peter Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University in Orange County, California, most former white supremacists do not experience a sudden change of heart. In fact, moral reasons fall to the bottom of the list. Instead, as was the case with Shannon Brown, the decision to leave a hate group is almost always driven by a personal stimulus: a social or family feud, a divorce, an abusive relationship, a split between rival factions, a public shaming, a run-in with the legal system. The choice is rarely brought on by empathy for people they have been conditioned to despise. “We call it ‘defaulting back to the mean,’” Simi said. This is when people exit violent extremist groups, only to rejoin the “polite racists.”

This is why former white supremacists like Brown often struggle with persistent racist feelings, even after they’ve cut ties with their pasts. Counseling former extremists about their childhood, as a treatment method on its own, will not work. Simply exposing them to diverse people won’t do the job either. Any solution will be more complex, because hate is more complex. It’s a socially, historically, and institutionally bred behavior that embeds in the psyche. Solving the problem is not a matter of just getting someone to leave a hate group. Hate and racism become part of their core identity, Simi said, and for many who leave hate behind socially, abandoning it psychologically is a much harder process. Simi calls this the “hangover effect.” Hatred has an insidious way of hanging on, never quite disappearing, even for the ones who want to wish it away the most.

Despite the research, historical notions of racism as a “disorder” that can be measured and treated continue to imbue modern race science. The widely used Implicit Association Test, for example, which measures how mental associations can influence behavior—how our minds link concepts, assessments, and stereotypes about other people—characterizes implicit bias as an infection we are exposed to throughout our lives. Psychiatrists Carl Bell and Edward Dunbar describe racism in the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders as a kind of “public health pathogen.”

Such thinking about racism as a disease that can be treated has led some scientists to forge ahead in search of a neurological or pharmaceutical cure. The idea that, one day, people might be able to treat racism as easily as they alleviate heartburn is certainly tantalizing. Indeed, in 2008, a philosopher proposed the idea of a “pill for prejudice,” to reduce the influence of bias on judicial decisions, after the drug propranolol—a beta-blocker that relieves hypertension and reduces anxiety by interrupting stress hormones and is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder—was found to also reduce implicit bias in a sample of white people for a short period of time.

Other experiments have shown that it is possible to counteract racist thoughts at least temporarily. In six studies involving nearly 23,000 people, Calvin Lai found that playing up vivid counter-stereotypes was very effective at reducing biases within individuals. In one experiment, researchers asked subjects to imagine “being kidnapped by an evil middle-aged white man, only to be saved by a dashing young black hero.” Within minutes, the subjects had decreased the intensity of their biases and the speed at which they made prejudiced associations by 50 percent. There’s a catch, however: “After just a day or a couple of days,” Lai said, “these effects fade away.

The idea of “implicit bias” began to take off in American workplaces and society a decade ago, as corporations looked for alternatives to “diversity training,” an $8 billion effort that has been largely unsuccessful. Studies have found that, rather than encouraging participants to embrace people of all colors and creeds, forced classes on diversity often backfire, making people more defensive and divided. Implicit bias, by contrast, is rooted in the idea that we all possess inherent prejudices. Instead of mandating employee training on racial sensitivity, diversity awareness, compliance with antidiscrimination laws, and lessons on how to better integrate the workplace, companies in recent years have spent millions of dollars on new programs that train employees to recognize their biases—the idea being that if we can simply acknowledge our prejudices and blind spots, we can overcome them. Implicit bias trainings often involve videos, slideshows, or personal anecdotes that reveal how a person’s individual biases may influence a particular situation. Approaches include talking through experiences, writing privately about racist feelings, watching videos of racist incidents, role-playing, listening to personal stories of discrimination, and learning lessons about history and policy.

Yet laboratory studies have shown that, like the diversity trainings, anti-bias initiatives may also be ineffective at combating racism. Some of the exercises probably do have an effect, Jeni Kubota said. The problem is “they only work for a little bit”—the same way the subjects in Calvin Lai’s experiment were only able to dampen their biases temporarily. “Then you go back out in the real world, you get reinfected with these associations, and any cognitive intervention that you did diminishes over time,” Kubota said.

The problem with viewing racism in medical terms is that it confines racism to a disease in the body or mind, something biological that may be treated—even cured—without the need for larger societal changes. “It assumes we can just fix it with a pill or download screensavers of Denzel Washington and Lupita Nyong’o and all of a sudden you will stop being racist—a pain-free, recreational fix for what is hundreds of years of historically fraught problems,” said Jonathan Kahn, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice.

This is the frustrating reality of racism that science has illuminated. Much as we’d like to believe that white supremacists exist on the radical fringe, and that what it will take to cure them is to reintegrate them into mainstream society, the truth is not so simple. Racism courses through mainstream society, too, lurking in the brains of people like Shannon Brown and her family. Similarly, corporate anti-bias trainings suggest a straightforward set of steps for alleviating prejudice. But the idea that bias is somehow “inherent” in all of us—a fact of life, something normal and natural, which simply must be recognized and accepted—is deeply unsatisfying. Why should we settle for a society in which racism is allowed to persist?

Neuroscience has exposed the shortcomings of the current approaches to combating racism. But it has also revealed that curing hate is theoretically possible—under the right circumstances, and with enough mental effort. And one day, science may figure out a simple “cure.” To that end, researchers have started to study the members of hate groups more closely, to try to understand whether extreme racism operates in the brain the same way bias in the general public does. Simi, one of the leading experts in this field, has spent the last 20 years studying neo-Nazis in order to understand their motivations and behavior.

In a pilot study this year, Simi and researchers at the brain development lab at the University of Nebraska used fMRI scans to compare five former white supremacists with nonextremists. The subjects viewed racially charged images, such as swastikas, Confederate flags, or images of people in interracial relationships. The brain scans revealed significant differences in neurological activity between the former white supremacists and the control group. “So it’s not just a difference by random chance,” Simi said. “Most of the heightened activation was occurring in one part of the prefrontal cortex in particular,” the region associated with regulating moral behavior.

The pilot study is too small to draw conclusions, and Simi is working to expand the research to include a larger pool of former white supremacists, current white power group members, and nonextremists. But Simi believes he is on the path to identifying exactly how extreme racism operates in the brain. It is slow, expensive, difficult work, but the impetus for it, Simi said, came from his interviews with former white supremacists, who would tell him, “I try and try, and I just can’t stop hating people.”