The tools exist to greatly decrease racism in the United States. The time has come to use them. Social Scientist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) demonstrated that “incorrect stereotypes” (prejudices) are functionally equivalent to wrong concepts (theories),” and could be changed through a “re-education” process based on dialogue and free expression (Lewin, 1945, 1997. p52). To do so individuals had to come to their own conclusions, but those conclusions could be reliably influenced by “group belongingness” (positive peer pressure) (Lewin, 1945, 1997, p55). Only a critical mass has to change for a work culture or indeed an entire country to change. This was proven by the successful cultural reconstruction of Germany and Japan after WWII. Lewin had passed away but had been a strong influence in the US State Dept, which wisely engaged both countries in their post WWII transition. They could not be forced to change, and neither can we. We, the US, need a cultural reconstruction today.
Lewin’s field theory provides further clarity. Every social condition is held in place (homeostasis) by a field consisting of driving and restraining forces. Increasing the pressure of the driving forces (such as “law and order”) increases tension in the system. Decreasing the restraining forces is much more likely to create lasting change. To do so requires analysis by the people facing the situation. In the case of racism in the US, we need a national analysis of restraining forces and national action, coordinated with analysis and action at every local level. In the absence of national leadership, we can still work locally.
It is time. Lewin has already done the research, including the 1946 workshop for the Connecticut Interracial Commission, the Commission on Community Interrelations (CCI) study on “Handling Bigots” (which concluded that calm quiet responses to bigoted statements were more effective than silence or anger), along with CCI’s action research on gang behavior, integrated housing (integration, done properly, decreases racism), and integrated sales staff. Lewin’s research on racism and minority relations comes to two clear conclusions: 1. As Dr. Rodney Coates puts it, “Race is socially constructed. (Coates et all, 2018).” Racism, and even the idea of race, is a mistaken hypothesis and people can unlearn any mistaken hypothesis. 2. “…so called minority problems are in fact majority problems” and will only truly be solved through real social, economic and political equality (Lewin, 1946, 1997, p151”).
We will have racism until we truly unfreeze the homeostasis in the US. We will have riots as long as we have people who have nothing, have been treated as nothing, have been controlled through violence, and have nothing to gain by “behaving” and nothing to lose by “misbehaving.” We will have police brutality in response. We can and must do better.
Lewin concluded in 1946 “…that this job demands…an utmost in courage. It needs courage as Plato defines it: ‘Wisdom concerning dangers.’ It needs the best of what the best among us can give, and the help of everybody (Lewin, 1946, 1997, p.152).”
Coates, R., Ferber, A. and Brunsma, D. (2018). The Matrix of Race: Social Construction, Intersectionality, and Inequality. United Kingdom. SAGE Publications.
Crosby, G. (2020). Planned Change: Why Kurt Lewin’s Social Science is Still Best Practice for Business Performance, Change Management, and Human Progress. Boca Raton, FL. Taylor & Francis. Due out by October 2020. Preorder today: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0367535726/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1
Lewin, K. (1997). Resolving Social Conflicts & Field Theory in Social Science. Washington DC. American Psychological Association.