Towards Herd Immunity Against Racism

Image: Julian Wan, Unsplash

Racism is not a biological disease transmitted by invisible, airborne viral particles. But it spreads in surprisingly similar ways. Like microbes, racist ideas can be passed on from person to person, carried by word of mouth. Left unchecked they can also grow exponentially: the more people they reach, the more they multiply. As such, racist ideologies can influence the behavior of a large proportion of the population, causing unthinkable pain and suffering along the way.

Given those similarities, wouldn’t it make sense to approach the issue of racism like an infectious disease? Much like when we try to get to herd immunity to break the chain of transmission of a deadly virus, couldn’t we take measures to ensure that the majority of the population is “immune” to racist ideologies as well? Not through vaccination programs but by raising public awareness?

In a way, we already do. Many of us speak out about racial discrimination and how it continues to affect our lives. We display messages in public spaces with calls to actions against racial injustice. Whenever there is an “outbreak” of racism, like a racist statement from a public figure or an act of violence against a minority group, we rally to extinguish it before it gets a chance to spread further. These and many other actions we take help drive community engagement and harden our collective “immune system” against the spread of racist ideologies.

Unlike a viral infection, though, the transmission of racist ideas can also be facilitated by media, bypassing traditional social structures. It is especially evident in the case of the internet, where bad actors can conceal their identities and reach anyone, anywhere. Aided by misinformation and rumors, online social networks, message boards, and forums provide a fertile breeding ground for racist ideologies. Vulnerable individuals can come into contact with racist ideas this way, even if people in their household or neighborhood aren’t racist.

Today this problem is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that is forcing us to abandon social activities and isolate from our communities. It is a critical handicap. Whereas to fight the novel coronavirus we must increase social distance, to fight racism we ought to do just the opposite: decrease social distancing between the majority and minority groups. To bring people from different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities closer together: where we live, learn, work, play sports, and socialize, not further apart.

Changing people’s minds and moving them physically closer is as hard a task as it gets, especially while a deadly pandemic is ravaging every aspect of our lives. It certainly is not as simple as getting a flu shot at a local drugstore. But it doesn’t mean we are fighting a lost cause. To that end, it may be worthwhile to look at racism through the lens of a contagious disease. As the concept of heard immunity demonstrates, to win against a pathogen we don’t necessarily have to make every single person immune. Just enough of us to make it very hard for the bug to continue spreading.

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