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Racism: Part of us All
Original version published in “Being Reasonable” by this author
Racism may be the most confusing of all human evils – and one of the most misunderstood. As individuals we tend to focus on racially motivated injustices and brutalities, and the waste of human potential accruing from both, yet, when it comes to solving the problem, we relegate that to governments. It's their job to write better laws and expand enforcement. We may have come miles in understanding that racism exists, and how it damages everything it touches, but we have not gone a hundred yards in understanding why it exists and what each of us must overcome to fight this evil. For me to put you in that frame of mind I need to provide a compact, high speed, overview of human development and history – so please hang on. If you get lost just keep going. I repeat myself a lot.
I'll bet you didn't know that race is a biological term. It refers to animals, or plants, different from others within their species as a result of hereditary traits. Species, by the way, is generally determined by the ability of members to successfully interbreed with each other. Seeing as the three major human races, Negroid, Caucasoid and Mongoloid (complete with approximately thirty sub-categories), can successfully breed with each other, we are all subspecies of the same species, Homo Sapiens.
Distinct subspecies, or races, are categorized by the existence of various unique physical traits developed over many generations as a means of adapting to specific environments. Generalized differences in size, shape, skin color and internal organ capacity, for example, are all environmental adaptations occurring over millennia and relating to the physical survival of individuals.
The stimulus for these changes occurred under the duress of diet, climate, altitude, terrain, and types of predators and prey. Just as one example, take the black skin of both African and Australian aboriginals. Genetically there are recognizable differences between these peoples but they share skin colour because dark skin is protection against excessive ultraviolet radiation – just as light skin, because it has less pigmentation, is more readily able to absorb ultraviolet radiation. Dark skinned people gradually adapted to a lighter skin when they moved to the more northern regions where not only is there less direct sunlight, but more clothing is worn. Without this lack of pigmentation, they would not have been able to absorb enough sunlight to produce a healthy supply of vitamin D. In other words, the colour of our skin is a genetic adaptation to the climate our forebears migrated into.
To emphasize this reality, scientists, most notably, molecular geneticists like Alan Wilson at Berkeley, have traced human origins to a single female living in Africa between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago. She has been dubbed the Mitochondrial Eve. Such pronouncements may be more dramatic than actual but little doubt exists that our entire human species is descended from a small group of individuals who established themselves in North Africa and from that location spread all across the world. Various controversies exist over which human species spread first but Homo Sapiens seems to be the one that survived. From this perspective, you could say that if it were possible for every one of us to trace our family tree back far enough we would all eventually arrive at our Black African ancestors. That should roll a few red necks over in their graves.
Migrations out of Africa and into the rest of the world continued, with the migrating populations subsequently expanding and adapting to fit their environment. This was the norm right up until the advent of the Agricultural Revolution, which occurred between 5000 and 10,000 BC. (Only an Anthropologist could call something that happened over five thousand years a revolution... but it was revolutionary in scope.) The invention of agriculture meant humankind was moving from millions of years as a nomadic hunter/gatherer to a lifestyle based on growing crops and raising animals. It required staying in one place and forming fixed communities. This had never been done before and it eventually transformed our entire species. It created civilization.
One of the most significant changes agriculture brought to the former hunter/gatherers was that when things went well, and their crops were productive, they ended up with surplus food - and they discovered they could use this as a trade good. Once trade became common fixed locations were established where goods could be exchanged. Trade brought accumulated wealth, which didn’t exist in the nomadic days, (hard to pack on your back). Accumulated wealth brought territorial acquisition, and territorial acquisition brought the concepts of land ownership and borders. Territorial ownership and borders subsequently brought conflict and war over those borders; war brought alliances and treaties; and alliances and treaties introduced "us" vs. "them" based on what side of a line you live on, we call it nationalism, which continues to this day.
The advent of civilization also began the process of remixing the races. Trade, the resulting population growth, and the search for more wealth, led to improved technologies. Boats that could travel to faraway places, and come back, with cargo and, occasionally, strange looking visitors. Races have re-mingled for the past 10,000 years to a point where little separation exists. We are all hybrids originating from the same gene pool and, as such, separating the various races under any circumstance is purely an issue of social perspective; a cultural construction... racism.
Over the centuries, racists have reached into religion and science to support their ideas, and promoted the concept of breeding for superiority, which they generally defined as breeding more people like themselves. Their philosophy also included ignoring or condemning any information that disagreed with their pursuit of racial purity. The belief remained strong because various political and religious leaders have promoted it and some renowned scientists have abused their intellect to support the cause. However, most religions at least pay lip service to the concept of "everyone equal under God", and science tells us that "pure" breeding is a polite euphemism for "in" breeding – where breeders seek to isolate various desirable traits by breeding from a select gene pool.
Unfortunately, for racists, time and time again it has been proven that traits associated with superior individuals such as honesty, courage and self-sacrifice are neither related to physical appearance, nor genetically transmittable. In fact, in a truly biological analysis, breeding members of a species that are not closely related is more likely to create superior offspring through a process called "hybrid vigor".
None of this information is new or difficult to understand. So why would entire cultures, whole generations, choose to ignore this knowledge in favor of concepts based on irrational, and obviously false, information. At the heart of that puzzle lies a true understanding of racism, and this is where we are going, I hope, but first, more background.
For scores of generations many of your personality traits were seen to reside in your "blood" (DNA, in modern parlance). It got to a point during the early 20th century, up until World War II, where famous "race scientists" like Max Gunther would point to a region in Europe and say that people born there will be... and then go on to assert in disturbing detail their predominant character traits covering everything from integrity to sexual proclivity. And, as you might guess, where Gunther was born people had superior blood coursing through their veins. Adolph Hitler and Mussolini were big fans, as were many royalists and political leaders, even in North America. It was taught in schools as science.
Man’s inhumanity to man, (and woman), during World War II changed this popular outlook drastically and the scientific theories of J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner subsequently took over as the reigning conventional wisdom. They proposed we swing to the opposite end of the spectrum; we are born a blank slate and our personality is completely the result of environmental conditioning. That held sway for a generation until the late 60's, when the weight of evidence from cognitive learning specialists, ethnologists, socio-biologists, and many others who studied learned behavior, accepted a new reality suggesting we arrive on this earth with "behavioral predispositions". Perhaps as much as 50% of our personality arrives with us at birth... and one of the strongest of these predispositions may be xenophobia.
Xenophobia is a fear of, or hostility toward, strangers, and it, along with inclusive fitness, is the root cause of racism. Virtually all animals are xenophobic. It's a primal defense mechanism and, therefore, it became a genetic trait. In human prehistory for hundreds of thousands of years our predecessors roamed the forests and plains of Africa living in kinship groups, or clans, of approximately twelve adults and eighteen sub-adults. When times were good, and the group had low mortality, it would expand until almost doubling, and then split into two groups, which would go their separate ways... the new group moving to occupy another territory. The area humankind lived in was large, all of Africa, with a whole world to migrate into, and the population was low, so interaction outside the family grouping was limited to chance encounters with other clans and, perhaps, seasonal gatherings at prime harvesting sites.
Evolutionary biologists now suggest that because of this prehistory we developed an individual orientation, and behavioral pattern, defined as “inclusive fitness”, which is centered on loyalty to tight family groupings. Outsiders were to be feared. They were competitors in the constant search for food and for prime areas of shelter from the elements and predators. During this era only the strong survived, particularly in times of scarcity, and one of the required strengths was a suspicion of people you didn't know, and a willingness to sacrifice for those you did know. If you weren't fearful of strangers you were more likely to be captured or killed... and the more different someone looked, or acted, or sounded, the more you must be suspicious of them.
For hundreds of thousands of years this survival mechanism was a necessary cornerstone in the makeup of every successful human being. If you didn't possess it, and wandered around like a Dodo bird, you and your genes became just as extinct. The obvious fact that we are here means that we were born with this predisposition. It is part of our human nature.
The bad news is that in a civilized world where we constantly interact with many different people, the more different they are the less likely we will trust them – whether conscious of it or not. It's built in. With education and training we can reason away our racial suspicions but we cannot eradicate them. They are genetic, always there, and when we are very tired, stressed, or "under the influence" the race demon can leap out and surprise even us.
This is not a justification for racism. Recent history has proved that we can control our suspicions, and train ourselves to look beyond physical differences – valuing the qualities a person develops and earns. But we can't be complacent. Racism is far more subtle and more personal than most of us imagine. And understanding how easily it can be brought to the surface, and inflamed, is a necessary part of living in a crowded world. Time and again history has shown human beings are vulnerable to charismatic leaders who take the differences in others and designate them as dangerous or simply wayward and, from this, deprive them of the rights and privileges all of us depend on. These leaders create fear and turn it into hatred for others, and we fall for it because we have this weak spot in our nature, which we don't understand, or which we even deny exists.
Are you a racist? Yes, but you can't admit it without disturbing the people around you. Like many situations in our lives, the first step to finding a solution must be to accept that the problem exists. Once we make the personal acknowledgement we can prepare ourselves for when this little piece of genetic coding rears up like a virus and tries to become part of the decisions we make about each other. Until we understand its nature this bug is free to roam around in our attitudes seeking to attach itself to any and all parts of our lives.
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