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Can Herd Immunity Protect Against Racism?

University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, March 10, 2015. The university's president expelled two students Tuesday after he said they were identified as leaders of a racist chant captured on video during a fraternity event. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, March 10, 2015. The university's president expelled two students Tuesday after he said they were identified as leaders of a racist chant captured on video during a fraternity event. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

People who decline to vaccinate their children (“anti-vaxxers”) made headlines recently because of measles outbreaks in some communities. Medical experts say that 92 to 95 percent of kids need to get the measles vaccine in order for herd immunity to exist — that’s the minimum required to keep outbreaks at bay and protect those who can’t get immunizations. Yet the CDC says that seven states report kindergarten vaccination rates of less than 90 percent. In some classrooms in Marin County, California, where measles cases have recently appeared, only 26 percent of students are fully vaccinated.

Anti-vaxxers, while relatively invisible and benign as individuals, can be harmful and dangerous when they reach critical mass.

In their home communities, both racists and anti-vaxxers may seem perfectly mainstream because they cluster together in pockets of unchecked ignorance. When that happens, their beliefs and actions begin to affect the rest of us.

The same is true of racists.

Who wasn’t horrified by the video that surfaced last week, featuring Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members from University of Oklahoma gleefully chanting lyrics so offensive they couldn’t be played on TV?

Here’s what I found most troubling: that such sentiments were repeated so brazenly, so shamelessly, and in front of so many people. None of the participants seemed concerned that his racist attitudes would offend anyone within earshot (certainly no one in the video spoke out against the racist message or tried to stop the chanting).

Apparently when racists reach critical mass, their disgusting, threatening voices have license to ring loud and clear.

When one racist stands alone, his words get a very different response. Consider Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. When he was caught making racist remarks, no one joined in — we heard crickets. He was investigated by the NBA, shunned by other team owners and eventually forced to sell his team.

Like a measles-infected child who sneezes into a crowd of healthy, vaccinated peers, his vitriol flickered and died. No one caught the bug.

Thanks to a prevailing wind of decency in America, our herd immunity against racism is usually pretty effective. Back in 2007, CBS fired radio host Don Imus over racist remarks he made on his broadcast. Talking heads who make racist comments lose their jobs all the time — just days ago, Univision fired host Rodner Figeuroa because he said Michelle Obama looked like a cast member from “Planet of the Apes.” Nobody wants to be associated with such bigoted, socially unacceptable speech.

So what happened in Oklahoma? Did the instigators of that chant believe they had a like-minded audience, all of whom would enjoy singing about lynching? Were they right?

Obviously not, because someone made the video and shared it. But so many students joined in or at least tolerated the situation; there was a definite outbreak of racism on that bus.

Just as anti-vaxxers swear they are acting in the best interests of their children, the racists of SAE defended themselves earnestly. “I made a horrible mistake,” said one of the fraternity members. Friends and family of two students in the video tell us they are “good boys,” and “not racist.” They see themselves one way, but the world sees them differently.

Is anyone working on a vaccine for racism? Because I know of a group of young men in Oklahoma who are perfect for the clinical trial.

In their home communities, both racists and anti-vaxxers may seem perfectly mainstream because they cluster together in pockets of unchecked ignorance. When that happens, their beliefs and actions begin to affect the rest of us.

But when herd immunity exists — whether in the form of a fully vaccinated public or an enlightened population with the guts to speak out against racism — we are all safer. We benefit from the advances in medicine that protect our health, and also the progressive attitudes about our fellow humans that protect our civility.

Is anyone working on a vaccine for racism? Because I know of a group of young men in Oklahoma who are perfect for the clinical trial.

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Laura McTaggart Cognoscenti contributor
Laura McTaggart is a U.S. Navy veteran and a management consultant specializing in nonprofits.

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