Racism and Negligence


Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Edu Bayer/New York Times)

For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.


Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.


Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.


We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.


Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.


Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.


Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).


We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.


Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.


To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.


Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

How to raise kids well in the age of Trump

This post is an excerpt from “A Cornell psychologist explains how to raise kids well in the age of Trump” by our scholar Katherine Kinzler, originally published on Quartz. Click here to read the full piece.

children diversity

Like many, I hope to seek goodness amidst chaos. Regardless of who leads our nation, what can we do—individually and collectively—to inspire virtue in the next generation of children?

Encourage children to think independently. Psychology researchers used to reduce young children’s morality to their ability to follow authority. Fortunately, there is now good evidence that children can engage in their own moral reasoning. They can understand that just because an authority figure says that a negative action is permissible, it may nonetheless be morally wrong. Now is the time for us to encourage children to discover and evaluate evidence for themselves. We can remind them that just because a person is in power, their ideas are not always right.

Discuss the value of a democratic system. Legal scholar Tom Tyler and developmental psychologists Alex Shaw and Kristina Olson have shown that young and old people alike care about a fair decision-making process. People like it when they get their way, sure. But they also value a fair system.

Many Hillary Clinton supporters feel disappointed that Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election because of the electoral college. But while there may be good reasons to consider amending our system for the future, the fact is that Trump won under the system we have in place now. Children are smart enough to understand this. They can respect the process of a fair election, and they can also brainstorm how they might improve the procedural system used in the future.

Watch our own language. The psychologist Marjorie Rhodes has shown how quickly language can inadvertently transmit bias. When we talk about whole groups of people as being a certain way, it is very easy for children to learn biased feelings toward that group—and to think that members of that group are all the same. We should try our best to refer to people as individuals, not as members of racial, ethnic, or religious groups. It is also important to combat cultural notions that “boys play with trucks” or “girls like pink.” The more children hear about boys and girls as being two distinctly different kinds of groups, the more easily they pick up gender stereotypes.

Lead with actions, as well as with words. Children pick up on the nonverbal cues that we send them. This is true about learning racial prejudice and about learning adults’ views of who is high and low status. We can engage in simple acts of kindness and humanity, displayed toward people of all different groups. Invite friends who are different from you to your home. Smile at people who are different from you and sit next to them at the playground. Children are watching.

Expose children to diversity. In my own research, my colleagues and I have found that being exposed to multiple languages increases children’s abilities to take the perspective of others. Likewise, studies of children in racially heterogeneous schools suggest they are more egalitarian than children in racially homogeneous schools. Often, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of parents’ interest in diversity from the impact of the exposure itself. So cover your bases. Be the kind of parent who values diversity, and let your children enjoy the potential benefits of intergroup exposure.

Remind children that most people aren’t all good or all bad. Social psychologists Adam Waytz, Liane Young, and Jeremy Ginges have shown that different groups—including American Democrats versus Republicans and Israelis versus Palestinians—think their own groups’ aggressions are motivated by love for one another, whereas the other group’s aggressions are motivated by hate. In other words, an Israeli is likely to write off a Israeli’s hostility toward a Palestinian as being motivated by love of Israelis, whereas the same Israeli would think that a Palestinian’s hostility is owed to hatred.

It is easy to lapse into this kind of polarized thinking, which misattributes people’s motivations. Adults and children alike can be reminded that often what we perceive as negative or hurtful acts do not stem from equivalently negative or hurtful intentions. It is never a bad idea to consider how you or a loved one might feel if the tables were turned.

If you’re a woman, consider getting into politics—and encourage girls to do the same. In a university setting, we often worry about the dearth of women in math and science fields. But in multiple levels of American politics, there is also an underrepresentation of women. Building a pipeline for female governance will be difficult without sufficient role models for girls to follow. Women who want to help can consider getting involved in politics themselves and by making themselves visible and accessible to a generation of girls who will be inspired to join them.

Together, people of all backgrounds can encourage their children to help build a nation that prides itself on embracing difference.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Dan P. McAdams on “The Mind of Donald Trump”


Our scholar Dan P. McAdams  is a psychologist whose work focuses on stories people tell about their lives and how their narratives help create their respective personalities. “Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large,” he wrote about his research in  The Virtue Blog last October.

Recently, McAdams published a piece in the June/July issue of The Atlantic analyzing how the personality of Donald Trump might shape his presidency, writing “A large and rapidly growing body of research shows that people’s temperament, their characteristic motivations and goals, and their internal conceptions of themselves are powerful predictors of what they will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them.”

McAdams investigated 4 areas of personality construction: Disposition, mental habits, motivations, self-conception; in doing so he explored Trump’s telling of early childhood memories, self-referential language, authoritarianism, focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating, and persona as warrior.

In the August/September issue, readers responded to the article. McAdams also wrote about the piece, noting “Composing an evidence-based psychological commentary on a presidential candidate—one that draws exclusively on well-validated constructs in personality and social psychology and relies on reputable biographical sources—constrains an author in many ways. For one, there have been only 43 U.S. presidents, which is a small sample size for comparison . . .While some supporters of Trump may dismiss any effort to make psychological sense of the man, some detractors will not be satisfied until he has been psychologically eviscerated. I tried to perform a fair-minded interpretation—sticking to the facts as we know them and to some of the best ideas in contemporary psychological science.”

Read “The Mind of Donald Trump” in The Atlantic here.

Read comments and Dan P. McAdams’ response here.

Dan P. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, and Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Valerie Wallace is Assistant Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.