The Disease of Fear

“Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.”

— Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was unfortunately wrong about the sources of bigotry and wrong about the antidote for it. Education is not the antidote for bigotry, because bigotry is not the disease of ignorance. Or, perhaps it is better to say, racism is not only the disease of ignorance. It is equally the disease of fear, and, fear, unlike ignorance, cannot be overcome by education alone.

Because it operates subconsciously, fear can persist long after the beliefs that inspired it have been disproven and discarded. As the current cover of Time magazine illustrates so vividly, the transformation of racial views in America has not produced a corresponding change in the lived experience of most African Americans. The practices and institutions that sustain racial privilege have outlasted the racist ideas that originally justified and sustained them.

There are many reasons for this, both psychological and institutional, but fear is one that stands out, particularly with respect to police brutality. It is one thing to understand intellectually that racism is morally repugnant and philosophically untenable. It is something else to act on that understanding when you are consumed by fear.

Even though the police officers involved in instances of violence typically describe their fears in great detail (for obvious reasons), our public discourse shies away from discussion of the subconscious dimensions of racism.

We are reluctant to think of racism as a problem that penetrates into the American psyche. We would much rather think of it as a lingering remnant of a historical injustice. We would rather focus on supposedly isolated incidents of cultural racism, which allow us to indulge ourselves in a ritual purification. The perpetrators apologize, attribute their behavior to ignorance, and allow us to return safely to a complacency that does not interrogate the deeper forces that structure racism in America. We are left with an immoral society but no moral culpability, just a few unfortunate scapegoats. We are left with what race scholars have taken to calling “racism without racists.”

It is understandable that, like Thomas Jefferson, we prefer to think of racism as a problem of ignorance. After all, if the problem is ignorance, then it can be solved by education. If, however, the problem operates at both a conscious and a subconscious level, then the problem cannot be solved by education alone. As James Baldwin said 50 years ago, “we are unconsciously controlled by history.” Four centuries of white supremacy leaves deposits in the subconscious as well as the conscious mind.

Fear of blackness was useful to the regime of white supremacy; it helped sustain and justify it. However, it is proving to be particularly stubborn and inconvenient now that we are engaged in the project of undoing the legacy of white supremacy. While we have made substantial progress toward intellectually dismantling the ideology of white supremacy, we are having a harder time purging ourselves of the fear that was used to justify it.

If Baldwin was right, then things are much worse than Jefferson believed, much worse than most of us believe. If Baldwin was right, then overcoming ignorance about race—already a seemingly unattainable proposition—will not be enough to eliminate racism. We must also go to work on the hard wiring of the psyche; we must address what Baldwin called the “ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology.” What Baldwin communicated so profoundly is that the problem of racism is more than the disease of ignorance. It is the disease of fear, inscribed fundamentally in our sense of self.

That racism operates subconsciously as well as consciously is perhaps most strikingly evidenced by the fact that racially disparate policing does not seem to vary much based on the racial composition of the police force. In Ferguson, the police force is overwhelmingly white. Indeed, police forces across the country are disproportionately white. And yet, racially disparate policing seems to persist regardless of the composition of the police force.

We are all—black and white alike—products of the history that Baldwin references. We all carry the legacy and burden of that history with us. And, yes, education will be an important part of our response to that history. But it won’t be enough. Only integration can overcome subconscious fears, and this means much more than integration of police forces. It means integration of all aspects of social life: schools, board rooms, city councils, and, most importantly, neighborhoods. As Clarissa Rile Hayward has shown, racism persists even after racial attitudes have shifted, unless societies change the physical spaces that keep racial injustice alive.

In writing about the legacy of white supremacy, bell hooks, like Baldwin, emphasizes the psychological dimensions of white supremacy. She writes about the urgency of love, first about the urgency of black people learning to “love blackness” and then about the aspiration for a broader “beloved community” that might finally overcome the both the cultural and the institutional aspects of white supremacy. Among the many lessons to be learned from the senseless deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddy Gray and so many others is that all of us—black and white alike—must first learn to stop fearing blackness. We cannot get to love until we get past fear.

Jason Neidleman is Professor of Political Science and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at the University of La Verne. He can be contacted at