The Racist Origins of the Phrase “Social Distancing”

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed human behavior, it has introduced a number of new words and phrases into the English lexicon. Perhaps the most prevalent phrases is “social distancing.” Unfortunately that phrase implies the wrong message because interpreted literally, it means separating socially from people — practiced in the extreme, it prescribes social isolation — something that is very harmful to human beings. A more appropriate and accurate term would be “physical distancing” that refers to the distance (at least six feet) people need to maintain from one another to reduce the risk of passing or getting infected with the highly contagious coronavirus. And as millions of people around the globe have discovered, you can be perfectly social standing six feet apart, or thanks to the internet, being thousands of miles apart. But the most insidious aspect of this phrase is that it is steeped in racism. Let’s take a closer look at the history of this insidious phrase.

This rather odd phrase captured the interest of Lily Scherlis, an English doctoral student at the University of Chicago, who wrote a fascinating article, titled “Distantiated Communities: A Social History of Social Distancing” for Cabinet magazine (April 30, 2020). As she traced the phrase in its proper historical context, Scherlis discovered that not only is the phrase not accurate for its current usage — it is, disturbingly, based on racism. Scherlis elaborates: “[Social distancing] materialized as if from nowhere: a scientific coinage, a spontaneous naming of a systematized set of behaviors miraculously devised by presumed experts. ‘Social distancing’ has actually lived several lives. It and its precursor, ‘social distance,’ had long been used in a variety of colloquial and academic contexts, both as prescriptions and descriptions, before being taken up by epidemiologists in this century. In the nineteenth century, ‘social distance’ was a polite euphemism used by the British to talk about class and by Americans to talk about race. It was then formally adopted in the 1920s by sociologists as a term to facilitate the quantitative codification that was then being introduced into the nascent study of race relations. In the second half of the twentieth century, psychiatry, anthropology, and zoology all adapted it for various purposes. And it was used in the 1990s [during the AIDS crisis] in the United States to analyze what happened to the gay community when faced with straight fears of contagion. It was only in 2004 in a CDC publication on controlling the recent SARS outbreak that the term ‘social distance’ was finally deployed for the first time by the medical community.”

The earliest use of the phrase appears in the 1831 translation of Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne’s memoirs of his friendship with the famous French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Bourrienne describes how when Napoleon entered the room after a successful military campaign that he could no longer address Napoleon in an informal manner: “His position placed too great a social distance [distance sociale] between him and me not to make me feel the necessity of fashioning my demeanor accordingly.” Scherlis adds, “This use, referring to the social rank of individuals and thus the etiquette demanded between persons, was common in anglophone culture throughout the nineteenth century, especially with regard to class.” This concept of social inequality becomes woven into the fabric of culture in the 19th century in Great Britain as well as the United States, where slavery was an entrenched part of society. Scherlis continues: “[In the U.S.] social distance was a palatable way for whites to describe how to continue practices of white supremacy after abolition. The term’s softness glossed over the realities of slavery and later anti-black violence, as well as the challenges formerly enslaved people faced in making a livelihood. In 1850, an abolitionist British Baptist church condemned US whites for ‘keeping your most injured brethren in Christ at so great a social distance.’ A pro-secession article that appeared in the Richmond Enquirer in 1856 describes the anxiety of poor working whites who might soon be competing with formerly enslaved farmers, while ‘the rich, owning the lands, might keep the negroes at a greater social distance.’ An 1869 article accuses Frederick Douglass, among other black emissaries appointed to represent the United States abroad, of aspiring to ‘increase their social distance from the African.’”

Perhaps the most egregious form of racism with respect to this phrase occurs in the wake of the Chicago race riots of 1919. Scherlis explains: “Following the 1919 Chicago race riot, the nascent sociology department at the University of Chicago convinced a ‘wealthy Chicago heiress’ to fund research into the budding field of “race relations.” Faculty member Robert Park had studied with Simmel in Berlin, and hoped to apply the figure of the stranger and its associated concepts to racial dynamics in the United States. It was in this new incarnation as a sociological concept, then, that social distance found its ‘first notable empirical application’ in the codification and quantification of how people belonging to one race felt about those of another. For Park, this project represented ‘an attempt to reduce to something like measurable terms the grades and degrees of understanding and intimacy which characterize personal and social relations generally.’ Importing Simmel’s term in order to describe this measurement, Park used ‘social distance’ as a structuring concept in his large-scale survey of Asian Americans living on the Pacific coast. Park asked Emory S. Bogardus… to assist him in the project. It was for this occasion that Bogardus devised a ‘quantitative indicator of social distance.’ His statistical measure would go on to have a “profound impact” on US sociology, becoming “one of the most celebrated historical social psychological tools in American intellectual history.” It is called the Social Distance Scale, and is still in use today. The scale equates ‘distance’ with prejudice, which it calculates based on a group of given respondents’ agreements or disagreements with five to seven statements. The statements are designed to gauge the willingness of each member of that particular social grouping to ‘share certain situations’ with members of other social groupings.”

The Social Distance Scale, published in 1925, lists seven degrees of intimacy as representative of the spectrum of possible human relations, in essence quantifying an individual’s level of racism:
To close kinship by marriage
To my club as personal chums
To my street as neighbors
To employment in my occupation in my country
To citizenship in my country
As visitors only to my country
Would exclude from my country

During the late 20th century, the Social Distance Scale was applied to map just about any context by mental health experts, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, housing experts, law enforcement experts, zoologists, and finally epidemiologists. Scherlis points to the AIDS crisis in 1990 as a critical turning point for the phrase “social distancing.” Schelis elaborates: “This moment becomes a hinge between the term’s sociological legacy and its reincarnation as a public health protocol. ‘Social distance,’ as it pertained to the AIDS crisis, was often used to analyze the phenomenon of stigmatization, as it had been in psychiatry. At the same time, the notion of ‘distance’ took on a new physical literalness, as well as an unprecedented association with public health. With the AIDS epidemic, stigma palpably attached to (false) anxieties about contagion: an HIV-negative public suddenly became wary of even casual touching of those profiled as likely to be HIV-positive, fearing that the virus could leap simply from epidermis to epidermis… Suddenly, social distance was not only a way to distinguish degrees of prejudice against populations, but also a description of the physical distance to be kept from other individuals for one’s own protection… Two incompatible discourses collide here: social scientists aspiring to close the gaps of animosity between populations, and those trying to increase the space between people’s bodies from fear of what toxicity might pass between them.”

In an interview with Time magazine, Scherlis discusses how shocked she was to learn of its history and impact on American culture. When asked about what surprised her the most, Scherlis responded: “I think the Social Distance Scale undergirds our way of subconsciously thinking through issues of identity and inequity. It makes it seem like people obviously fit very neatly into these groups that obviously hate each other and that that hatred is simple enough that it can be turned into a number and counted and averaged across a population. It’s just this huge reduction…” Scherlis felt it was important for people to really understand the dark history of this phrase that is used so casually today: “I just think it’s really important to remember how much institutionalized government-sanctioned language is weighed down with racism. When you use the term and see the term used, it’s good to hold in our heads how much the term has been used to justify elites sequestering themselves from pretty much most marginalized or disenfranchised folks in the U.S. across 200 years.”

As of July 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has already made several reforms; it stands to make many more in the months and years ahead. Thanks to Schelis’ brilliant research, educating Americans about the racist roots of the phrase “social distancing” immediately and replacing it with “physical distancing” or some other more generic term should be one of those reforms.


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President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

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Alexander Atkins

Alexander Atkins

President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

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