In 2020, Condoleeza Rice wrote: “Our country has a birth defect: Africans and Europeans came to this country together – but one group was in chains.
After President Joe Biden spoke of the need to “confront” and “defeat” white nationalist terrorism in his inaugural address, the former secretary of state’s admission is more relevant than ever. Rice’s analogy is among the most salient of the countless attractive but imperfect examples describing racism as a disorder or a disease.
Rice’s racism as a “birth defect” analogy runs deep, as he emphasizes that white nationalism is not a foreign object but rather a building block of the American experience. And the challenges it poses are those that cannot be treated with an antibiotic or a vaccine: racism is part of the organization’s blueprint. Just like the effects of Trisomy 21, say, racism can be managed but not fully repaired or circumcised.
Yet the analogy lacks some key features of how racist behavior works, and in particular white nationalism. While a birth defect usually remains local for an individual, racist ideology has gained traction these last years and percolated fringes of the dark canvas in the halls of the United States Capitol.
What about infectious diseases? Contagion analogies are often used broadly to describe the spread of dangerous ideas and disinformation. In the case of white nationalism, they grasp the virulent nature of their ideals, how they can migrate from subpopulation to subpopulation and, within a few years, corrupt entire corners of the republic.
Radicalization also involves converting individuals into white nationalists, much like the spread of infectious pathogens from one host to another. The infectious analogy also highlights the diversity of white nationalistic pathogens, sometimes presented as “strains”. For example, the fringe plots that are adjacent to white nationalists (p.., QAnon) travel like viruses, are highly contagious, and replicate quickly and clumsily.
Other versions of white nationalism function as parasitic infections (for example, the disease caused by tapeworms), spreading less rapidly, but involving machines more closely linked to human biology. The white nationalist “parasite” permeates daily politics – hundreds of indifference from lawmakers (or supporters) to the Confederate flag or from individuals running in national elections who suggest Muslims should not hold public office.
Despite these connections, the infectious disease analogy also suffers from a critical limitation: it implies that white nationalism is the product of a foreign agent that infects the minds or hearts of individuals. In this way, the infectious analogy is wrong, especially where the birth defect analogy is correct – there is nothing alien to white nationalism, and it does not need to “invade”. ‘America; it was still there.
Since the racism was still there, what about a cancer analogy? After all, cancer cells are our own cells, which have gone awry.
The analogy draws on certain foundations of cancer biology: a class of conditions defined by cells in the body which, due to the existence of mutations, undergo deregulated growth that interferes with the normal physiology of the body. This interference causes a disease that can be fatal if left unchecked and is more dangerous when it spreads from tissue to tissue throughout the body.
This analogy was recently defended by How to be an anti-racist author Ibram Kendi, who spoke of “metastatic racismTo which anti-racism efforts can serve as a potential remedy. By extension, the notion that white nationalism is a “cancer” works well in many ways: The terrorists on Capitol Hill are local Americans, not foreign nationals. They are radicalized and organized underground, and distribute their influence from Internet chat rooms to elected office.
More so, white nationalism mostly resembles the class of cancers caused by germline mutations, those which are transmitted from parents to offspring. This is an important link, because one could wrongly equate white nationalism with the cancers caused by somatic mutations. Germline cancers are the most meaningful analogy, as they relate to what made Rice’s “birth defect” analogy useful – the seeds of white nationalism live in every cell in the American project.