Racism, Colonialism, NeuroScience and Culture

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

A Proposal for Shifting and Mediating Cultures of Violence in Police Organizations


In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests by people of color and allied white folks directed toward the police and their use of violent force, have erupted across the country. It seems also that violence used against the protesters by police has erupted across the country. The protests all include demands that the police departments in question be reformed or otherwise brought under control. I know this violence is not new. It has been going on for centuries. One of the primary descriptors used to describe the behaviors of the police is “racist”. In a way that is probably historic and not seen since the demonstrations surrounding the murder of Emmet Till, the number and force of these protests is compelling the powers that be to take protesters’ demands for police reform seriously and begin public discussion of steps toward resolution.

This paper aims to be a part of that discussion.

I agree, behaviors by the police appear to be motivated and self-justified by racist beliefs. There is another layer to these phenomena that also will benefit from being named and included in consideration as proposed solutions to the issues are generated, reviewed, discussed and decided upon. That layer can, and should be talked about as colonialism.

In this paper, I will suggest the outlines for an approach to mitigate the worst of these colonialist behaviors. Please note: I am not using the word solve. I’m not at all certain when it comes to issues with the kind of complexity and intransigence that exist in these cases, a solution is truly possible. But I do believe that with the right kind of involvement, commitment of time and resources and process design, mitigation that gets the ball rolling toward real change, is possible.


The program outlined here, if taken on, is not the only action needed to begin resolution of this situation. These issues represent a very complex problem that is emergent from a complex system of interrelated elements. Such problems are often described as complex rather than complicated, and sometimes as wicked problems. Wicked problems are often generated by emergence in complex systems and do not respond to linear attempts at solution. When we try to apply a linear solution, the system tends to generate more versions of the complex problem. What we are left with is a need for problem management as we play whack-a-mole with new emergent variants of the same problems.

Other aspects of attempts to shift elements of the system relating to emergent violence might include changes to policy at all levels, formal re-training for the police, and deep community organizing to restore people’s sense of agency and empowerment. These are only a few possibilities of what might be considered for a more inclusive and complex approach to the issues revealed by these events. However, the element of the organization’s culture, itself a complex system, is one of the more powerful elements in the system and responds to careful work.

Also, in need of attention, though not obviously a part of the current firestorm of publicity, is internal racism – a well-documented phenomenon in many police departments. It is most certainly a contributing factor to the public behavior that is being protested. It would be hard to imagine a group of individuals willing to inflict racism in public if it were not commonly accepted in their own internal workplace. These related issues, however, are beyond the purview of this paper and my own expertise.

For the purposes of discussion, I believe that there are three basic ideas that need to be addressed to achieve the mitigation of racist ideation and colonialist action that are at the root of the violence perpetrated by the police that we have witnessed.


First, racism and colonialism are based and supported in the department’s culture and those of the groups that constitute the systems that support those rank and file officers who actually commit the violence against the protestors. The meaning and implications of culture here are quite specific to this narrative and the work I am proposing. To better explain why this is an important concept, I will be drawing on the work of Edgar Schein, probably the country’s foremost scholar of group cultures,

Schein says that culture is a set of assumptions shared by a group about the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and act regarding some issue or phenomena affecting the particular group. Pay close attention to that word, “assumptions”. The notion that members of a group are holding a set of assumptions in common, suggests that these ideas are not available to group members for conscious judgement or evaluation. They’re like wallpaper. Once we’ve created them, we acclimate to them and they become taken for granted. This does not let anybody off the hook for their choices. It just means that the choices people have made based on those assumptions are not easily considered or analyzed. Because they are essentially invisible to the individuals, they are acted upon automatically.

For these reasons, cultural assumptions are often very resistant to rational argument as a process for change. They are the product of years of experience in which they have proven themselves to be valuable for solving recurring problems. These assumptions are also tied to people’s identities and they are stored at every level of cognition from the ego to the id to muscle memory/brain connection (see the later section on the importance of neuroscience to this process).


I understand racism to be a set of beliefs held by one group about their innate superiority over other groups that are different from them in some marked way. These are usually based on some inherited physical characteristic such as skin color or eye shape, for example. Those characteristics often are considered in combination with some understanding of the second group’s national or regional origin, e.g., Africa, China, Latin America, the Middle East, etc.


Colonialism is a set of values, beliefs, activities, and behaviors imposed by a dominant group on another non-dominant group. This can occur in the context of a region, nation, community neighborhood or a corporation. The processes of this imposition are fundamentally disempowering because the subordinate group is seldom given a choice regarding the acceptance or implementation of the ideas or activities in question. These can be but are not limited to things like the forced removal of indigenous people from traditional lands, expropriation of those lands, the institution of slavery, dismantling of cultural practices or religions and replacing the established practices with those of the dominant group, or outlawing the speaking of a native or traditional language.

The fundamental, historical motivator for colonialism is to keep the “natives” in line. In the days of overt imperial activity this was a means to the end of securing an area’s resources for the colonizing people. The establishment of a slave trade that enabled the colonization and settlement of what is now the United States is an example. (Remember, the United States were originally 13 colonies.) Other forms of early colonialism included the American genocide of indigenous tribes and the extensive missionary activity carried out by Europeans of all sorts across north and south America. Indigenous people could hardly interfere with the settling and exploitation of their land if they were dead. Interference also was unlikely if they had been indoctrinated in a belief that their role, “in the eyes of God” was to support the settling of their traditional lands by those Europeans.

It strikes me that the response by police all over the country is likewise to reinforce an idea that people of color are here at the suffrage of white folks. Therefore, they are not to “disrupt the peace” so that business and commerce may continue without interruption.

I am not a person of color, but I can try to look at these events from that perspective and a background of having been put in the role of second-class citizen. In that role, I can see myself as one who is denied access to promised freedoms and resources (healthcare, freedom of assembly and movement, the ability to produce wealth). From this perspective, I feel that the American social contract which promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has definitely been broken. I thought everybody had to sign on. Apparently, I was mistaken. Quite reasonably, my response is, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

When it comes to the experience of the two processes in action, racism and colonialism, we observe that they tend to interact with each other in a reinforcing vicious cycle: racist values encourage colonialist actions. Colonialist actions reinforce racist values and beliefs.

This is caused not only by the common values that form the ideological basis these two systems, but because of the neurological processes we use to learn, remember, and project our thinking into the future.


We think and learn with our bodies. Not only do we carry muscle memory about things we’ve done, we carry meaning about those memories through neuro- physical simulations we do with our brains and experience in our bodies. (For more information on the neuroscience references I’ve employed here, please see my book, “The Flow of Organizational Culture”, chapters six and eight.)

We use these neuro-simulation processes when we generate ideas and our brains stimulate specific muscular responses to those ideas as if they were happening in this moment. Think about lilacs and you will likely smell lilacs. Think about touching a hot stove and you will feel the muscles of your arm contracting to pull your hand away from the imagined stove.

We generate concepts as well as thoughts about our futures. We do this by recalling memories of situations that are similar to, or have aspects of what we think we might encounter in the future. These are usually snippets of memory we stitch together to form a coherent mental image. These memories produce the physical simulations which make them completer and more useful for anticipating and responding to events in the future. In many ways, we remember the future.

We also create new concepts and even metaphors about things we’re trying to express in something other than concrete form. For example, if we want to express the concept of grasping something, we literally feel the neuro simulation of it with our skin, nerves, muscles, etc. based on simulations constructed with those sense memories and our organs’ connections in our brains.

The implication of this is, for a group to re-learn its cultural assumptions, the effort cannot be accomplished solely with didactic lecturing. The process must be, in large part, experiential and visceral in nature. The individuals must somehow feel doing or executing the new, desired behaviors in order for them to connect meaningfully with the brain. They must also be repeated and reinforced for at least four months. C.f., the 21/90 rule. (We recommend practice in everyday work and coaching as suggested below.) Otherwise those behaviors and the ideas that go along with them will not be retained.

Because the effort is about changing assumptions that exist within the culture of the group, discussion with the potential for consensus is important to address the cognitive side of thinking so that individuals can experience and articulate the meaning of their actions and the support of their peers. The use of generative metaphors is important for this aspect of the process. (Again, see “The Flow of Organizational Culture”, Chapters 6, 8, and 9). Culture is socially generated and constructed. It requires a social milieu for it to be changed.

An effort to address a culture of colonialism and racism cannot succeed if that effort is viewed or experienced as being itself coercive. The coercive mindset is the one that existed to create that culture in the first place. If that is the mindset at work in this process, it is just as colonialist as that we are seeking to modify. Participants will experience and interpret it as such. These people need to have say and a choice in establishing the content and how it is adopted (with the guidance of superiors and consultants).

However, it may be that there are people who will choose not to go along with the program. If people are perceived not to be working toward the goals of program in good faith, those people should know up front they will asked to leave and withdraw from the process. How this will be done needs to be defined up front and transparent in its execution. (Everybody needs to be clear that this is about choices and decisions for which they as individuals are responsible and how their choices have consequences.)

Please note, this not something that I would recommend under other circumstances. However, my experience with the police includes instances in which particular individuals seem to have decided before entering the room that they were not going to change their minds about their beliefs, no matter what. If you can determine in conversation with such an individual that their minds are not irrevocably set, give them space to work on the issue with the rest of the group. If this person is fully dedicated to digging in their heels and monopolizing the time of the group for endlessly reiterating their position, that time is too valuable to waste.


An outline of the processes being considered might look like this:

· The primary group with which we are working (a police department) is part of a larger inter-connected system that might include City Council, mayor, unions and portions of the community. These system elements have all been part of the forces that have produced and sustained the racist/colonialist behaviors we are trying to address. As many of these system elements as possible should be included in the whole group.

· Once the parameters of what constitutes the whole group are established, leaders and representatives of the various subgroups need to be identified, recruited and authorized by their constituents to articulate an overall vision, goals and success criteria for the entire process. My experience has been that this works best if these can be stated as a promise of what they will accomplish and how they will behave that is made to the community.

  • · The whole group should be divided into smaller meeting groups of about 12 people each. This is a maximum number of individuals that can accommodate fully participatory group dialogue and discussion without overwhelming individual members. As the meeting groups are established, an effort should be made to ensure that representatives of each subgroup will be included in each meeting group. That is, depending on the subgroups, representatives of the various hierarchical levels of the department, unions, politically appointed groups (city council, commissions, etc., interested public).

  • An effort should be made to mix the representation in these meeting groups so that people who people who know each other well are not together through the process. This will encourage breaking down silos and provide more diversity of thought.

  • In each meeting group, a thorough discussion of the promise, goals, and success criteria should be conducted to ensure that all group members understand its aims, language, and implications and can repeat or paraphrase them when asked. The outcomes of this activity are that everybody involved will come to a consensus in which they are willing to go along with the process if not whole heartedly agree with all the elements. Again, people should understand this needs to be done in good faith, and that there will consequences for individuals choosing not to go along with the program as developed by the group, either now or in the future.

  • A discussion in positive terms of what the possibilities are for achieving the goals and the implications of success.

  • Statements by individuals in each group of what gifts, talents, strengths, etc., they bring to the process and effort. These statements can be generated as an outcome of strengths discovery interviews done in groups of two or three about accomplishments individuals have achieved in their lives from which the strengths can be identified and drawn. (The items should be captured, catalogued and distributed to participants as a potential resource for the whole group.)

  • A visioning exercise in which participants in groups of three are asked to draw with pen and paper a picture of life in their community when the stated outcomes are achieved.

  • A discussion of the implications of failure to achieve the goals and outcomes.

  • Specific skills and procedures training can be added in to this agenda. However, a role needs to be established for the group in suggesting and deciding upon such training. Design and delivery of that training should be done with an eye towards consistency with the approach of this program to ensure that it reflects the values developed with the entire group.

  • A wrap up session in which individuals state what will be the behaviors and actions to which they are going to commit to achieve the new norms of the promise agreed to achieve the goals of the program.

  • As the sessions conclude, each group should be asked to sum up their work for a report out to the whole group. This report should include comments about the content of the session as well as qualitative comments to be conveyed to the large group.

As people go through the process, they have been choosing and declaring publicly the behaviors and actions to which they are going commit to achieve the promise they are making to the community. Subsequently, all members should engage in coaching for reaching their goals. This coaching should occur on a regular basis (every two weeks to begin) to develop and reinforce their abilities and commitment for achieving and maintaining the behaviors to which they have committed. Coaching provides cognitive and neural reinforcement for firmly establishing and growing the new culture.

This coaching process can be adapted for those who are not in a formal organization, though it may take additional effort to prepare for it and execute it successfully. For those already in a formal organization, work toward these behavioral goals should be made a part of their performance review criteria. The performance reviews should be conducted quarterly in order for the review to be meaningful for needed adjustments to any behaviors. You’re unlikely to remember anything about behaviors, good or bad, that were executed a year or more ago.

The question of coaching raises a structural question. Under more conventional circumstances, I would recommend that each participant be coached by a supervisor, that supervisor by their manager, and so on. But who should be part of this group in this case of an issue that so clearly directly involves individuals beyond the formally defined organization or system. Here, I believe “the group” should include not only officers at every level, but also commissioners, city council and mayor and union leadership as persons who have a very direct influence on the thinking of the rank and file. By whatever means, we have to assume the force was given at least tacit approval, support and encouragement for their behaviors at some point, perhaps repeatedly over years.

It is generally believed by most experts in group problem solving that discussion of any difficult issue include those who are most affected, those with the most knowledge and those with the resources to affect a change. With this in mind, a portion of the system that I have not yet nominated for inclusion in this process would be some group of the protestors and other members of the public such as merchants whose shops were vandalized.

In order to get this process accomplished in a timely manner and ensure optimal participation, I am suggesting that a team of facilitator/consultants be retained and some large-scale meeting method be employed. My preference here would be to use the technology of Lenny Lind’s CoVision. (cf., “Virtuous Meetings: Technology + Design for High Engagement in Large Groups” by Karl Danskin and Lenny Lind.)

The cost of a project such as I this would be substantial in terms of time, money and resources. The logistics, to say the least would be imposing. The question to ask in response to this objection is, How important is it to get a handle on the racist attitudes and behaviors that have been so thoroughly enculturated and have produced the results we are seeing now? How many times have the solutions being proposed been tried before? This situation was not created overnight. It was constructed with the participation of hundreds of people. It will take time and resources to change it in any meaningful way.


The program presented here, has a combination of action learning based in neuroscience and an insistence on the police themselves having an active role in choosing and being primarily responsible for implementing new values and approaches. These factors will give the effort a better chance at making a positive impact than the recycled, more superficial ideas dominating the current conversation.

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