Racism and risk management

Author: Manu Steens

Corona has dominated the news for a long time, but now it’s back: racism. The situation in the USA with the death of George Floyd brings the old problem of racism back to life. In this case, the individual situation developed into a national problem to which even high-ranking officials, such as the president, do not seem to have a good response. Meanwhile, there were riots in the EU. France brought back memories of an earlier situation.

But also in the personal sphere of many immigrants, on an individual level, people are confronted with racism of several types such as physical and verbal harassment. The question that then arises is, how great is the risk.

When the subject is raised in the private sphere, it is easier for victims to talk about it in a limited circle of confidants. These testimonies can be very detailed. These conversations are necessary to know the situation well, to assess the risk. The question is then, first of all, how do you estimate such a risk? One possible way to get a feeling for the possible risk is to estimate the possible impact when it is realised. A measure for such a systemic risk is, briefly, the “gap” between the needs and the possible answers provided by the system. In this case, the needs of the migrants who experience racism here, and the solutions provided by society to these needs. If the gap is large, the potential impact in the event of an accident is very large. An easier example of a totally different type of risk is the electricity supply in the USA. The demand side has become very complex, with all kinds of (types of) customers, small and large, while the supply side delivers with a simple and outdated technical infrastructure. So if something happens to electricity in the USA that is serious, the impact will be huge. The solution to such asymmetric risks is to reduce or to eliminate the ‘gap’ between the demand side and the supply side. So we should be able to make the same reasoning for racism, we hope.

The fact that racism is a big problem has been clear in recent days. And apparently, in many places in the world, the layer of varnish of civilized behavior over a rough surface is wafer-thin, and dares to peel off.

But racism has been made illegal. That was one of the system’s solutions. Is that a solution to the verbal harassment that can mentally ruin a human being? Move to the actors in the situation: person x wants to bully person y. Person y appeals to the legislation and sues person x. Person x digs himself into the mental trenches, where he considers himself safer. The case goes to court, and causes further polarization of person x and y and their supporters. Result: the situation has only been good for the lawyers. As a migrant, can you approach it differently? Are “other measures” possible to say it in risk management terms.

Imagine: you are a migrant in a country, you work, you want to integrate, and you are confronted with situations like this. The problem turns out to be huge, as the world shows. So in order to find a good solution, the solution has to be something other than something that triggers further polarisation. But what exactly is the migrant’s possible situation? This is where the concept of “tribes” comes into play. People have a cortex that is hardwired for an “inner tribe” of about 150 people. These are people you know, who know you, for whom you stop to have a chat on the street.

When a migrant comes here, he/she leaves behind a “tribe” and is isolated here in the first instance. It is in human nature to form a “tribe”. That takes time, and therefore at the same time, a migrant is also more vulnerable than a “local”.

How is a “tribe” a solution? A “tribe” can be a solution for the psychological resistance of the migrant. So at the same time we know that it will only be a partial solution. He/she leaves behind a “tribe” and that is a serious price he/she pays. Especially when you know that part of the psychological well-being of the human being comes from being loved in just that “tribe”. So it is best for the migrant to create a new “tribe” in a selective way, by choosing people who also choose him/her. This is called reciprocity. A second psychological reinforcing factor is to use this technique of “tribes” in a conscious way. This can be done by seeing the bullies as from a “different tribe”. They don’t belong there themselves. Because tribes can be competitive when terrain is to be divided. This can be about the most fertile land, but also about more/less chances of passing exams, for example. After all, the results and chances of passing exams are statistically normally distributed and can be influenced.

There are some characteristics of this solution: it is a solution on an individual level and not on a political level. It takes time to implement, and it takes a dose of luck to meet the right people for the “tribe”, people of good will with an implicit outstretched hand. In the best case, this new tribe is multicultural. And it takes an iron will of the migrant not to isolate themselves nor to permanently withdraw in complaints.

Whether the “gap” can then be narrowed further with a political “push”, “pull” or any kind of measure, is not discussed here. Finding solutions, using both types of measures at the right time, is the work of governments all over the world. This requires the nudging of behavior on a large scale. This is on an individual level, and not on an individual level, and for more types of racist-risks.  The news shows that it’s time. The news also seems to indicate that it is possible, when a policeman kneels together with demonstrators, demonstrators protect a lost policeman and bring him back to his unit, soldiers dance the macarena together with demonstrators…. There is hope because there are people of very good will. But the risk is great.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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