Picture a world where political leaders refuse to promote racist stereotypes, where social media companies break down hate-filled echo chambers, where police are trained to counteract implicit bias, and where schools teach children tolerance so all feel safe.
That’s the complicated recipe to fight ongoing and rising racism and hatred in the U.S., experts at a Harvard forum said Wednesday. The complex response is needed because the problem is driven by a confluence of factors and amplified by the ways that technology has developed in recent decades.
“I had a friend, a European, say to me, ‘Whatever happened to your country?’ and he went off on how bad everything was. And I said, ‘Remember, this is a country that just a few years ago you were cheering because of the election of Barack Obama as president,’” said former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. “And it’s not like everybody suddenly moved out of this country and a whole new group of people moved in. What happened is we are a complicated country, and, while we’ve talked about the problems [with racism] here, we are a country of great tolerance and of acceptance.”
Doyle joined other panelists remotely for “The Spread of Hate and Racism: Confronting a Growing Public Health Crisis,” a session of The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Doyle pointed at education — both formal and informal — as key in the fight against racism and hatred. He also cited the power of the ballot box to change leaders who foster division. Some intolerant views stem from ignorance and lack of exposure to people of different backgrounds, he said, while others are reinforced by a national political debate that often supports negative racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Statistics say incidents of hate crimes were up in 2017 for the third consecutive year, punctuated by headlining episodes like the murders of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and the two African-Americans in a Kentucky grocery store, both in October.
“Acts of hate and racism, whether online or in person, are painfully visible these days,” said Phillip Martin, senior investigative reporter at WGBH, a contributing reporter to PRI’s “The World,” and moderator of the event.
Though the national political debate has played a part in fostering an environment permissive to intolerance, panelists said, there are other factors at work as well. Dipayan Ghosh, Pozen Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, pointed to the “commercial regime” that underlies the internet and an array of its services and platforms. That regime, he said, uses technology to create services that are compelling, even addictive, and designed not for the public good but to keep users on the sites and engaged in their services. These companies not only design “precise and sophisticated algorithms” to capture people’s attention, they use data from browsing habits, social content, and past purchases to target them as individuals, curating content in their social media feeds and customizing advertising to them.
That model has created a reinforcing environment for views of every kind, Ghosh said, yet companies have not been challenged to change their ways, and their business model has not been subject to regulation that might promote competition and fight the spread of hate.