Column: Please, no more Baltimores

Avery August and Lisa Nishii

Nearly half a century after a chain reaction of race riots ripped through cities like Detroit, Newark and Los Angeles, our nation again is forced to see racial differences through a lens of violence. Since criminal charges against six officers have temporarily quieted the unrest in Baltimore, it might be tempting to think the problem of a divided city has been “solved.” But it has not, and we might take this moment to ask why the legal progress of civil rights seems to have brought us nothing but mistrust.

The answer is simple: lack of exposure to others. And there is a powerful analogy for this that exists in nature.

Most of us avoid developing autoimmune diseases because we have developed tolerance to our own tissues. As our immune cells develop, they undergo a process referred to as “education,” where they are exposed to a variety of antigens, proteins that come from other cells and tissues that make up our bodies. This exposure to antigens educate the developing immune cells such that they will not view them as foreign pathogens. This early exposure to self-antigens results in “immunological tolerance,” and the immune system will no longer see parts of the self as different.

This begs the question: Would exposure to people of diverse backgrounds at a younger age lead us toward a society where police violence wouldn’t exist? Contemporary racism in the U.S. is like an autoimmune disease. The symptoms of which are street riots in Baltimore and elsewhere.

We might recall Oklahoma fraternity members blithely chanting a song containing the “n-word,” uncaring about the hate it contains. Why is this happening on college campuses, which are supposedly islands of racial tolerance?

You would think we wouldn’t be having this discussion nearly 60 years after the Kansas case Brown vs. Board of Education was supposed to correct this. But today students are increasingly arriving on college campuses having little exposure to other students who do not look like them.

In some cases, children today attend schools so segregated it would seem as if Brown v. Board of Education had not happened. Like the developing immune system, they may be therefore less likely to recognize different groups as self, as a part of their own society, analogous to the development of an autoimmune disease.

That’s the bad news in this metaphor. While the immune system can be easily educated on what is self when it is young, once developed, this task becomes much more difficult. Peanut allergies can be prevented, for example, if children are exposed to peanuts at a very early age.

Here is the good news. Exposing our children to the range of our diverse cultures early in their development could lead to the development of tolerance.

Familiarity breeds feelings of attraction, predictability, and safety. Thus, to the extent that people are exposed to racially different others early, they will be more likely to experience a sense of familiarity when they encounter racially different individuals later in life. Exposure to people who might otherwise be categorized as “other” is important because it allows people to develop more differentiated and complex understandings of members of the outgroup such that they no longer rely on overly simplistic (and often negative) stereotypes.

Finally, and most powerful, is the possibility that early exposure to racially different others makes it possible for what people consider to be “us” to include those who were previously thought of as “them.” Members of different racial groups need to perceive each other as parts of the same whole.

Much rhetoric around this subject centers around “tolerance,” and we must be clear about what that means. In the immunological sense, tolerance is the state of cells not treating cells as different or threatening.

Avery August is a professor of immunology and Lisa Nishii is an associate professor of human resource studies. Both are Public Voices Fellows at Cornell University.