Monday, June 22, 2015

A national discussion of racism?

Recent events include the racism-motivated murder of nine people in a South Carolina church, as well as the spate of racial injustice events by law enforcement.  The never-ending string of such incidents suggests to me that racism is alive and well here in the USA, and no one's hands are entirely clean.  We've been trying to address this topic for our entire national history and, so far, have been unsuccessful in truly coming to grips with it in striving to see it expunged from our national psyche.  It lives on like an insidious disease that has become immune to many attempts at finding a cure.

Racism has no roots in science.  Our genetic heritage demonstrates we all came from the same place:  The Rift Valley in Africa.  Interbreeding is so widespread, virtually all of us contain genes from one or more races different from what we wear on the surface.  Isolation of different groups led to the inevitable divergences in certain traits, such as skin color or physical characteristics, but these divergences are trivial.  We're all just humans, and "racial" differences amount to virtually nothing of any real scientific significance.

So why did we invent racism when it has no scientific basis in objective reality?  Racism is the child of tribalism.  Tribal unity and support for one another was an evolutionary advantage for humans at our beginnings.  Our ability to subordinate our personal needs for the needs of the tribe has been a powerful influence on the "success" of our species.  But that evolutionary success comes at a price:  hatred and distrust of other tribes, different from our own.  Given that some groups of humans look notably different from other groups of humans,  it's virtually automatic to let that hatred and distrust run free.  Differences in religious beliefs clearly stoke the fires of tribalism, as well.  And that hatred is handed down from one generation to the next - children tend not to see racial differences as very important, so adults have to inculcate such "values" in their youth.

Can we have a discussion that could lead to the eventual repudiation of racism?  I like to think it's possible and I certainly want to see that happen.  But there are powerful forces that make this difficult to envision any time soon.  For instance, many people use racism (and, more generally, tribalism) to prop up their personal sense of identity, seeking to lift themselves above others by the simple expediency of de-humanizing those who are different, proclaiming them to be inferior.  This is a familiar refrain in human history, and it's not likely to go away just because some of us want it to.

The current discussions about the Confederate flag indicate that many in the South are unable to let go of the failed Confederacy, the aims of which were to promote and enhance the spread of bigotry and treason.  The tribalism of the South causes them to cling to what was thoroughly defeated and shown eventually to be immoral, no matter how noble their troops were in their vainglorious failure.  They couldn't imagine being loyal to the "American" tribe because they aimed to perpetuate a hideous Southern institution:  slavery, so they formed their own tribe:  the Confederacy.  The rest is history, of course.  Surely the time has come to face the reality that the Confederate cause was based on a racist falsehood.  Not much to be proud of in that cause.

Racism is hardly unique to the South, of course.  Urban ghettos all over this nation are the visible result of widespread racism, even if it's not "institutionalized" in law (as it has been in the South for so much of their history).  In the final analysis, when it comes to human interaction, many Americans (inside and outside the South) are uncomfortable with those whose racial characteristics are different - on both sides of any specific racial divide.  At least Southern racism has been overt and clearly made manifest in obvious ways (e.g., the ostentatious display of the "stars and bars" symbol).  Racism, like the HIV virus, can wear many disguises that make it difficult to detect, much less to eradicate.  Many people harbor racism despite imagining themselves to be completely free of it.  I know people who vigorously repudiate racism, and perhaps they genuinely like and care for some individual of a different race.  While they may like individuals, however, they still harbor a tribalistic contempt and distrust of groups of people they don't even know.  This is an insidious form of racism because it involves a self-deception.  "I have friends who are XX!"

People who harbor irrational beliefs are incapable of being persuaded by logic and evidence.  They stubbornly cling to those beliefs without regard for their basis in reality.  Perhaps, with time, such beliefs will die out - but it may take a very long time!  Tribalism is deeply embedded in our genes.  Having that conversation is likely to prove futile, in the face of so much willful irrationality.  But I think we have to continue to try.  Hence, this blog post.

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