Friday, April 6, 2012

The Racism Pill

The drug propranolol has had a rather storied history. It was the very first successful beta blocker ever devolved and garnered its inventor, James Black, a Nobel Prize in medicine. It has taken many forms over the years and is commonly used to treat hypertension and anxiety disorders.

Now it appears that this pharmaceutical wonder has a new ailment to combat: racism. According to a recent Oxford University study, the drug reduces racial prejudice in white people. The study took a group of 36 Caucasian volunteers and split them into two groups. The participants were subjected to an “Implicit Association Test” that reveals subtle racism by having the volunteer match white and black faces with positive and negative words. 
According to the researchers, all those in the placebo group displayed racial prejudice while those receiving the medicine had a rate of only 30% marginal racism. The current theory is that the medicine alters the brain chemistry associated with fear thereby reducing the negative reactions of Caucasian to African-Americans.  Study author Sylvia Terbeck summarizes the findings thusly, “I think that it’s the first step to show or to understand the neurobiology of racial prejudice and to say that probably fear plays a role in some forms of racial prejudice.”

One of the most striking aspects of this study is the Implicit Association Test to detect subtle racism. Wouldn’t it be easier to just find participants who are overtly racist and give them the pills? Why is the subterfuge even necessary? Also, I would like to know just whose faces these white people were being shown. For instance, there is a big difference to how I would react to a picture of Nelson Mandela versus, say, Suge Knight. Until I have some context for these pictures I am not sure it is fair to identify these people’s initial reactions as racist.

However, if these findings are validated can you imagine a world where racism is treatable by taking a monthly trip to Walgreens? Also, would this function like other prescription drugs where dosage is proportional to severity of the disease? I can just see a member of the Aryan Nation telling his doctor, “I think I might need the extra strength caplets because while I am now attracted to Beyoncé I still vomit when I catch Schindler’s List on cable.”

Perhaps it will eventually be available over-the-counter allowing people secretly to treat family members who are not yet convinced they suffer from bigotry. After all, who doesn’t have an uncle who could benefit from a little propranolol mixed in with his applesauce? Can you imagine the commercials for this drug featuring a dignified Anglo-Saxon woman confessing to the camera that she sold her summer home in a panic before she realized that the Mexican she saw was just a gardener? She could look into the camera and say, “Thanks to Racenol, I attended my first quinceañera and had an affair with the grandson of a Tuskegee Airman!”

I would think that the hardest pill to develop would be one that treats hypochondria since the placebo might prove to be more effective than the actual medicine in which case it would be impossible to fund further research. It would also be nice if there was a drug for stubborn ignorance but it would be next to impossible to convince sufferers that they suffered from a real disease.

It would be wonderful if we could treat bigotry and hatred with an easy-to-swallow caplet, but I am far too cynical to believe that something as deeply ingrained as racial favoritism can be chemically erased so easily. Of course, given enough time, perhaps they will develop a pill for the treatment of pessimism and I will be able to get onboard.

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