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The only reason Racists Anonymous seems weird is that almost nobody in America admits they’re racist

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In Concord, North Carolina, a group called Racists Anonymous has been meeting for the past month. It’s based in Trinity United Church of Christ fellowship hall, and the organizers are hoping other congregations follow their lead and start holding their own meetings. They say their membership is growing all the time.

That’s according to Tanya Mendis and Xavier Walton, reporters for North Carolina’s WCNC, who reported on the group last week — and tweeted out this picture from its headquarters.

It’s no surprise that the news was met with skepticism from those who heard the group’s name and worried that its attendance could work against self-proclaimed racists (“Sounds like a trap,” fretted one Twitter user) as well as those who interpreted the group as providing support for racist views. (“If this is real this is so disgusting ... ashamed of them,” said another).

The group has a provocative name but pretty reasonable goals

There’s nothing in Walton and Mendis’ reporting that indicates the group is designed to “trap” racists or to support their views. Trinity United’s Rev. Nathan King said the group’s goal is to “deal with the racism” among members and to “eliminate the racism within ourselves.” He told WCNC the group formed out of a desire to do more than just pray in light of the recent string of high-profile stories of African Americans dying at the hands of police officers in killings that often go unpunished.

It’s unclear what exactly the members, whom King described as “about a dozen people from all backgrounds,” talk about. That’s all anonymous and confidential, of course. The meetings, WCNC reported, are led by a licensed therapist and follow the traditional 12-step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Other open questions include how exactly that model, which is designed to support people battling addiction, translates to changing a person’s beliefs and/or actions; and how leaders and participants define “racist” (see the last section for more on how that’s far from agreed upon).

But the information available suggests that the people behind the group do embrace an important idea that’s not particularly well-understood: that racism causes harm in ways that are much bigger than individual mindsets (think: the residential segregation and economic and educational inequality that are the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow; unequal treatment by teachers, medical professionals, police officers, judges, and juries; the way stereotypes are reinforced by media, etc.) but that individual attitudes, bias, and beliefs do work to keep these larger forces going.

"[The goal is to] change systematic racism in the United States of America," a Racists Anonymous organizer told WCNC. King said he believes “the way to change our country is to change our community, and that starts one racist at a time.”

“Racist” isn’t a well-defined term in our society

The irony of a group like this is that it seems unlikely the people who are most aggressively racist would ever see their views as problematic and want to meet up to talk about and change them.

For example, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage earlier this year warned that “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” come to his state to sell heroin and “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” He was, as Vox’s German Lopez explained, “clearly playing on a racial trope in the war on drugs goes back to at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when local, state, and federal lawmakers pushed drug laws by suggesting that minority people would lure and harm young white women with drugs.”

But here’s the voicemail that LePage left for State Rep. Drew Gattine, after a television reporter suggested that Gattine had called him a racist:

Mr. Gattine, this is Gov. Paul Richard LePage. I would like to talk to you about your comments about my being a racist, you cocksucker. I want to talk to you. I want you to prove that I’m a racist. I’ve spent my life helping black people and you little son of a bitch, socialist cocksucker. You… I need you to… Just friggin’. I want you to record this and make it public because I am after you. Thank you.

He’s also argued that people of color or of Hispanic origin are "the enemy" and suggested that they should be shot. It’s safe to say you wouldn’t find someone with this mindset trying to shed his views of nonwhite Americans in a Racists Anonymous meeting.

The same goes for Donald Trump, who believes most Mexican immigrants are rapists (while conceding that "some" are good people) and once asserted that a Mexican-American judge was, by virtue of his heritage, unqualified to do his job. His response to the label? I’m not racist. Hillary Clinton is racist.

These responses aren’t unusual: They’re typical of what happens when people are accused of being racist. As the New York Times’s Greg Howard wrote in The Easiest Way to Get Rid of Racism? Just Redefine It, the redefinition of the word “racism” in many Americans’ minds as “malice in one’s heart” makes it easy for anyone to deny. After all, we can’t see into each other’s souls. The result is that these debates are rarely resolved, and that “the r-word” is reserved for only the most outrageous and explicit expressions of bias and bigotry.

Choosing not to define “racism” so narrowly and choosing not to avoid the label at all costs makes the participants in a group like Racists Anonymous unique.

It seems it would be hard to simply dismiss racist beliefs without having additional facts, historical knowledge, or frameworks for thinking about race in America to replace them with. There’s great potential in the fact that the group provides a setting in which several items on the following list of approaches that have shown promise for getting rid of implicit racial bias could easily be implemented:

  • Counter-stereotypic training: People can be trained, using visual or verbal cues, to develop new associations that contrast with the stereotypes they hold.
  • Exposure to individuals who defy stereotypes: Being made aware of people who challenge the assumptions that fuel our biases — for example, male nurses, elderly athletes, or female scientists — has shown potential to decrease them.
  • Intergroup contact: Simply having contact with the people about whom you have bias can reduce it. But researchers have found the contact typically has to involve individuals sharing equal status and common goals, a cooperative rather than competitive environment, and the presence of support from authority figures, laws, or customs.
  • Education efforts aimed at raising awareness about implicit bias: The criminal justice and health care realms especially have embraced this approach.
  • Taking the perspective of others: Considering contrasting viewpoints and recognizing multiple perspectives can reduce automatic implicit bias.
  • Mindfulness-meditation techniques: New research suggests that these can reduce implicit bias by short-circuiting negative associations.

Are there a lot of unclear elements about the operation of Racists Anonymous, and a lot of ways this could go wrong? Absolutely. Is it fair to argue that the members might be more effective if they supported the work of organizations led by people of color who are experienced in advocating for racial justice, versus gathering to talk about their feelings? Sure.

At the same time, it’s refreshing to see people leaning into the idea that everyday, good people can, in fact, be “racist,” and spending their energy addressing it instead of twisting the definition of the term to deny it.

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