Racism Revisited

John Smith—07/2002
Racism has been responsible for some of the most heinous crimes in history. But will we ever be able to stamp it out by the denial that racial difference may be more than skin-deep? Everyone knows that mere pigmentation levels cannot account for these differences, although most are afraid to even think such thoughts for fear of being branded racist. Following is an honest and decidedly politically incorrect examination of these issues.

WATCH A 100m men's sprint race at the Olympics and you will see an all-black line up. It would be difficult not to conclude that black races are the fastest because other races have had just as much opportunity to develop their genetic sprinting talent but are unable to run as fast. For us to refuse to even entertain that observation because it is racist is an act of denial. On the other hand, finding that most of the participants at a world theoretical physics convention are Asian or Caucasian does not lead to the conclusion that these races are cleverest scientifically because other races have not had the same opportunity and expectation to develop their genetic talent in this area… yet. If and when our societies become truly multicultural, differences between races will become more evident, unless society chooses to deny all differences.

The issues raised in the above paragraph are extremely politically incorrect. This is because racial equality, along with sexual equality, is a central dogma of democracy. And it should be! Democracy is a choice of social structure which affords equal rights and opportunities to all human beings because it asserts that all human beings are of equal value. There is nothing objective about values: this assertion of equality cannot be proved or disproved by observation; it is a basic premise that the enlightened individuals who founded true democracies decided upon. (Just because the fastest sprinters tend to be black does not mean that Blacks are more valuable.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are two definitions of racism: the first is the belief in the superiority of a race or races. (I presume this first definition is referring to intrinsic superiority because it is a fact that the Black men are superior at running 100 meters.) Intrinsic worth is a value judgement because it cannot be objectively measured, and so this aspect of racism is based on pure prejudice.

The second definition is the belief that human abilities are determined by race. This belief, however, has some backing in rational observation — black men are certainly the fastest sprinters in the world and it is not because they try harder. The black races have genetically superior when it comes to sprinting. Differences in races seem more than skin deep; quite how much more is open to scientific investigation, if such investigation should and ever could take place. This last sentence is not racist unless it is accompanied by personal prejudice. It is entirely possible to acknowledge differences between peoples without being a racist, although it is another matter not to get labelled a racist by those who are prejudiced against scientific observation! So the second definition can only count as racism if it is held on grounds of prejudice.

People with a great deal of fear and anger will always find "another" to vilify. In this way, the fear and anger inside them (which is there for whatever reason) is externalized and projected onto another. A boundary of "us and them" is set up which helps diminish the intensity of the anger and fear by the illusion of separation and justification. In this way, the real reasons for the anger and the fear never need to be faced… at least for the foreseeable future. "We" are, of course, always justified in our hatred towards "them" as "they" are so despicable.

Racism is a prime example of the process of creating an artificial "us and them" separation. It is very convenient to have another on which to project those emotions that we feel unable to handle. In Orwell's book, 1984, this sort of projection was important for maintaining social order, for it acts as a catharsis, prevented the implosion of anger and fear by projecting that energy onto an external enemy. Today, with our increased global awareness, psychological sophistication and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, we no longer have an easy external target onto which we can project our anger and fear (although, recently, Bin Laden and Iraq have become our new nemeses). This decrease in opportunity to project these emotions externally could be one reason why society seems to be getting less civil as anger and fear are instead projected onto targets within society itself.

Some of the most heinous crimes in history have been fuelled by the belief in racial inferiority of the victims. The Nazis reduced the status of Jews to sub-human, and this introduced a semblance of sanity into the Nazi mind when trying to destroy an entire race — for who but a psychopath could act in such a brutal way towards another human being? Most Nazis were (and are) not psychopaths but ordinary humans beings, like you and me, championing a pathological ideology of racial superiority which sanctions inhumane actions. Couple that with the coercion of a fascist society (which is, ironically, identical to the coercion of a communist society) and you have a recipe for deadly conformity. (Psychological experiments have shown that the average person on the street will administer what they believe to be a lethal electric shock to another human being when coerced into doing so by an authority figure.)

Opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum have a great deal in common with each other, as Orwell illustrates in his classic, Animal Farm. Those who vehemently oppose racism, or indeed prejudice of any kind, often express the same intensity of hatred and prejudice as those they target. Many prominent anti-racist groups today serve only to perpetuate the "us and them" separation created by racist groups. These organisations have sometimes felt justified in using illegal, hateful and undemocratic activity in order to reach their goal of a prejudice-free society. But prejudice can never reduce prejudice; hatred can never stop hatred. And so the cycle of hatred, misunderstanding, anger, fear and cruelty is perpetuated in the name of another ideology — albeit a noble one! But the application of just another ideology cannot awaken basic humanity, for this can only be kindled by the practice of loving kindness.

It doesn't matter really where that boundary between us and them is drawn, whether it is between women and men, Blacks and Whites, our country and theirs, Republicans and the Unionists, Jews and Arabs, people and their government, our football team and theirs, our corporation and theirs, non-racists and racists. All boundaries lead to hatred. Although there is usually a primary boundary which defines a person as a racist, a nationalist, a sexist, and so on, separation is separation and anyone needing to project hatred and fear by putting up these sorts of boundaries is likely to do so in other areas of their lives. This is why there is a strong correlation between racism, nationalism, sexism and other prejudices. Racists tend to be quite aggressively judgemental in all areas.

One thing is certain: Any individual, family, organisation, community, culture, society or nation who has ever tried to assuage their fear and anger by creating an "us and them" separation has suffered for it. In the long run it just doesn't work and ends up destroying all psychological equanimity. Living beings are not meant to be fragmented and isolated; it is only by being connected to and accepting of each other that we are able to receive the nourishment to live full and complete lives. The best way for us to reduce the fear and anger that we all have inside of ourselves is to be more inclusive of other people and the beliefs that they choose to hold. This does not mean that we condone the actions of those with strong prejudice, or adopt that prejudice ourselves, only that we are 100% mindful of the fact that they are a human being just like ourselves, and that they are projecting this hatred out of ignorance. Human beings respond to loving kindness, they do not respond to condemnation. (It is like the fable of the wind and the sun who took it in turns to see who could more easily remove a man's coat.)

Naturally, if someone is about to hurt another human being, we are justified in using the minimum force necessary to prevent them from doing so. The Nazis would have continued killing millions more in concentration camps had force not been used to stop them. Loving kindness, in this situation, is the act of preventing suffering, not only that of the victim but also that of the perpetrator — who is ignorant of the consequences of his or her actions. But unless the situation is this dire, and it usually isn't, it is unwise to directly intervene, for intervention only serves to increase the fear and anger in the person expressing prejudice, the very emotions driving the prejudice in the first place.

In a democracy, any of us can hold any beliefs we like so long as we don't physically harm others. We are also free to express those beliefs, so long as we are not directly inciting physical harm to others. In the United States there is a constitution, and that constitution, via the First Amendment, guarantees the right to free speech. But if that speech directly incites illegal conduct, then jurisprudence can impose limits on that right to free speech. Which is just as well as for few of us would support calls to violence. That said, everybody has a right to hate anybody they wish to hate. And everybody has the right to judge people by the colour of their skin (provided of course they don't act illegally from that judgement).

Prejudice is a very human trait. If we aren't judging people by their skin colour, we are judging them by their accent, their sex, their looks, their nationality, their ethic origin, their body, their intelligence, their personality, their height, their religion, their football team, their political allegiance, their religion, their private clubs, their beliefs, their salary, the car they drive, the clothes they wear, the house they live in etc. In fact, anyone who said that they were 100% unprejudiced would be a liar because much of this prejudice is unconscious and we have little control over it. We are ALL prejudiced to some degree, and we all judge people by standards that we often know intellectually we shouldn't. What is the difference between rejecting someone for the colour of their skin and rejecting them for their sex? Or rejecting someone for the colour of their skin and rejecting them because they are ugly? The only difference in prejudice seems to be how much it is likely to lead to hateful and violent conduct, and in the case of racism, this is more likely because the "otherness" of "them" is much more in your face.

The future of racism seems uncertain as the differences between the races may become more apparent in multicultural societies as opportunities and expectations become more uniform. Perhaps by this time it wouldn't matter because the distinction between races will be blurred by interbreeding, although this seems unlikely as the time frame for completion of this homogenisation is a long way into the future. But suppose that, before racial homogeneity is reached, it is scientifically proven that different races have, for example, different intellectual capacities. (I choose intellect here because it is pretty much universally valued by Western society.) Of course, such proof would be welcomed by those with racial prejudice (assuming their race is the most intelligent!) but would it promote racism in those who are not racist? Is prejudice that is based on fact prejudice at all? (Is a black man prejudiced when he believes a white man is likely to be a slower sprinter — even though he may hold that all men have equal intrinsic value?) Can a democracy ever admit to racial difference when the equality of its members is a basic tenet?

These are extremely difficult questions and anyone even entertaining them is likely to be branded as racist — such is the stigma. We are terrified of prejudice, and yet we are all prejudiced. Some prejudices are acceptable. For example, it is okay to be prejudiced against foreign countries, fat people, short people, those who are more or less educated, other football teams, other companies, and other social strata. Sometimes it is okay to openly list all our prejudices, for example in personal ads columns where ads usually include a whole shopping list: height, looks, education, build, intelligence and even colour of skin. Is it racist to want a partner of a particular racial background? (It is doubtful that such preferences are not based on some sort of racial prejudice.) Studies show that the majority of people, from all races, have some sort of preference to the ethnicity of partner they would like, so does this mean that most of us are racist at heart? And prejudice isn't just a learned behaviour: even newly born babies have recently been shown to have a preference for a beautiful face. Whether it is even human not to have some prejudice is uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that mindfully reducing prejudices is an important element of a civilized society for it brings us all closer together, encouraging a peaceful and cooperative milieu. In reducing our prejudice towards others, we reduce it towards ourselves. We learn to lighten up and lovingly accept different parts of our being. This is perhaps the most immediate advantage of reducing prejudice. We gain freedom from the greatest tyranny in the world — our own self-judgement. Politically, we learn true democracy and freedom; we begin to respect the value and wishes of every person, rather than resenting that our particular desires have not been met.

It is very important, however, that racism and other stigmatized prejudices are discussed openly and freely without the backlash of political correctness. Today in Western societies, the slightest allusion to racial difference is viewed as outright racism and this has driven such thoughts and feelings about racial difference (and most people have them) underground, where they fester. Racial difference has become the truth that dare not speak, and this creates a climate of political correctness where "playing the race card" has become absurdly effective and utterly counterproductive. (It is ironic that minority ethnic groups in Western societies often have a much healthier acceptance of racial difference, although prejudice unfortunately plays its part here as well.) When people become fearful even thinking certain thoughts because of the spectre of the thought police (which is becoming internalized in every "good" citizen) then we lose our freedom, our spontaneity and our humanity. Love and acceptance become contrived as we lean more and more to tow the politically correct line, and in the process learning to deny our feelings and emotions — a recipe for psychological disaster for the individual and social breakdown for society.

It is essential that we do reduce our prejudices, including our racial prejudices, but this must not come at the cost of personal dishonesty, restriction of thought and denial. It must be real; otherwise those feelings that are denied will eventually be expressed explosively. Racism has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in human history, and healing it can only be done by de-stigmatizing discussion of racial and cultural differences. No one is advocating that we must become 100% prejudice-free, but even a small reduction in such prejudices can bring much happiness into our lives and increase cohesion of society as a whole.

So I would like to end as I began, by stating that black men are the fastest sprinters in the world — no contest!