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Author and friend, Charles D. Hayes, recently shipped several copies of his newest paperback, “Evolving in a Dangerous World Made Racism Inevitable” to me and Dick. When we received the package, I emailed a thank you note. Charles responded. I replied to his response. Our back and forth email exchange was so interesting that I asked Charles for permission to publish it. Admittedly, this is a longer than usual post so we are going to experiment with it.  We are also posting it on the LA Progressive Forum where readers can chime in without having to read all the way to the end. You can access the forum by clicking "forum" on the menu above this page.

Here’s what we said ---

SHARON SPEAKING

This is Sharon. Thank you for the paperbacks. As always, your arguments are well thought out and well-reasoned - however, I disagree with the basic premise --the inevitability of racism. I understand that you've added the condition of dangerousness but even that does not explain the inevitability of racism. What it explains is the inevitability of a group of people with a strong common interest coalescing to achieve a common goal. Aside from working together to provide for the needs of the group, competition for limited resources is usually one of the main motivators that drives the in-group / out-group dynamic. That dynamic or us vs. them has been a constant theme in human history. Add the ingredient of power imbalance and you've got the makings of the establishment of a pecking order which may or may not crystalize into a caste system. What I question is the inevitability of race being the criteria for establishing pecking order and race becoming a proxy for determining merit. I agree that we are prone to tribalism -- again, my question centers on whether "race" had to inevitably become the human characteristic that determined placement in the pecking order -- another way of describing racism.

Hope that made sense. A sociologist whose work I highly valued passed away recently. His name was Allan G. Johnson. In his book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, he argues against the notion that fear of difference is an inherent human trait and, by extension, he argues that racism is not inevitable.

You can learn more here: http://agjohnson.wordpress.com/books/privilege-power-and-difference/

While reading his book, I reflected on my own childhood memories of when I began to develop a racial identity. In my opinion, racial identity doesn't occur naturally. Not like gender or sexuality -- racial identity is learned. My experience of becoming Black had a lot to do with what I was taught. It's partly developed by the way that people treat you. I remember not really realizing that I was Black until I was in a sea of white. I've come to believe that race is a social construct -- constructed with intention specifically so that a minority (very wealthy elite monarchs and oligarchs) could maintain power, control and amass greater wealth in the colonies. By creating the false impression that they (the wealthy) and the poor powerless people from Europe were members of the same tribe - they could reduce the risk of being overthrown and ousted. They came up with an ingenious way to reduce the odds of having another Bacon's Rebellion.

Anyway, I'm going on and on. Would love for us to have this conversation here:

https://forum.roundtable.io/LAPROG/posts

We've added a discussion forum for live ongoing discussions at the LA Progressive. So far, we haven't promoted it. But the discussion you and I are having right now is great fodder for the forum. I'm always so busy and so shorthanded that I can't afford to do anything that doesn't, in some way, also serve the LA Progressive.

Does this sound interesting to you? What do you think about my views?

Would love to hear from you.


CHARLES SPEAKING

I strongly disagree. To me the evidence is overwhelming. Starting with the fact that as babies we grow up with an acute ability to discern differences in the faces of the people we grow up with and thus other races look alike to us. We evolved during the prehistory era with small groups and every few people often spoke a different language and the threats from predators didn’t abate until recently. I don’t think it is at all possible with the range of differences in cultures to grow up without feelings of an us and them society. While our limbic system feeds us information when someone we don’t know approaches us with a sentinel level awareness complete with intuitions based on our life experience to date. The world today is rife with prejudice and if it could have been another way, I suspect it would have been, but of course it isn’t. We treat each other based on our impressions, our first impressions unless we are aware that they are likely tainted because of our life experience. For me to believe that racial biases and other biases based on notable differences were not inevitable would require evidence of societies who do not make biased instantaneous judgments about others, and to my knowledge there aren’t any. Most people do not want to be prejudiced but keep making such judgments without meaning to simply because of how our brains work.

BTW, the paper edition has several updates and an additional 500 plus words in the epilogue.

As a follow up thought, I would argue that it is not race per se, but differences, race is easy though simply because it stands out boldly as a noticeable difference. Every culture comes with feelings that their group hung the moon and others are just left to wonder how they got it up there, so to speak. I believe the only way we could avoid making biased judgments based on our differences would require some big biological changes in our gray matter. Wish we could have had this conversation a year ago.


SHARON SPEAKING

When you said, "I would argue that it is not race per se, but differences" -- you are saying exactly what I am saying. Do you see that?


CHARLES SPEAKING

Yes, I do see that. But if it didn’t lead to racism as is the case with the most notable observable differences, then why is racism ubiquitous. Where do we find its absence? Were it not inevitable, there should be lots of examples where it doesn’t apply, but I don’t know of any. Even in countries who consider themselves to be highly tolerant, there is clearly a tipping point in which too much otherness causes a backlash, like Brexit for example. Anyway, I think this in a running dialog form could be very insightful and enlightening. What do you think?


SHARON SPEAKING

Oh how I wish we were having this exchange on the LA Progressive forum. I think we have to be cognizant of how we use the word "ubiquitous". There is an acronym that you are probably aware of -- W.E.I.R.D which stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.

Here's a quote from an Atlantic article: "Almost everything experimental psychologists believe about the human mind comes from studies of the Weird. But perhaps you've guessed the problem: from a global standpoint, Weird people may be really... what's the word? Yes: odd. As Henrich et al show, many phenomena we've assumed are universal probably aren’t we can only really say they're universal among Weird people, who make up 96% of subjects in behavioral science..."

https://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2010/10/western-educated-industrialized-rich-and-democratic/181667/

But, to be fair, I think I understand your argument and why you think that taken to its furthest logical conclusion observed differences would inevitably lead to racism. But I'm not so certain that all paths had to lead to that final conclusion which is why I bring up WEIRD because it brings to the fore how we are blinded by our biased measure of what is universal. Again, I do agree that difference is at the heart of this discussion. Where we part ways is in the inevitability of race being that difference. It's hard to know because western civilization is so dominant.


CHARLES SPEAKING

Yes, I am familiar with the notion of W.E.I.R.D., but my understanding about human biology is that all human brains function the same way. And folks from cultures outside the West think we are “weird” because we are so different. And more to the point, in the West, we are stuck with solving this problem, because other cultures aside, we need to fix it. Isn’t there some way we can make this discussion a forum? Could we start with what is said so far and then continue. I am finding it very helpful in clarifying my own take on the subject, and I am always excited about the prospect of learning something that can cause a kaleidoscopic reevaluation of my worldview.


SHARON SPEAKING

In “Privilege, Power, and Difference,” a book I’ve frequently referred to to help maintain clarity and stay on track when trying to understand a particular issue on race, the author, Allan G. Johnson, talks about the inevitability of racism. Speaking of arguments in favor of the inevitability of racism, he says, “As popular and powerful as such arguments are the only way to hold on to them is to ignore most of what history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology and if people look closely, their own experience reveal about human beings and how they live. We are not prisoners to some natural order that pits us hopelessly and endlessly against one another. We are prisoners to something, but it’s closer to our own making than we realize.”

In Jared Diamond’s book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, he argues that for most of man’s six million years of existence, we lived in small nomadic or semi nomadic hunter/gatherer tribes. Diamond says that encountering strangers was rare but when it happened, the immediate reaction wasn’t necessarily one of fear. He says the outcome of the encounter depended upon the circumstances. In an interview on This American Life with Ira Glass, Diamond expands upon this. Diamond describes a situation where a member of a Papua New Guinean tribe encounters a stranger. Immediately following the encounter, the two strangers sit for hours detailing their ancestral lines to discover if they have common ancestors – finding none, Diamond claims they would then attempt to kill each other because the belief would be that the “stranger” came to be there for only one reason -- to take what is not rightfully his (more on this later).

Then Glass asks Diamond if this story says that this is built into us – to be suspicious and fearful of outsiders – to want to stick to our own tribe? Diamond asserts that it is going too far to make that claim. He says that people can be suspicious of strangers, but it also depends upon the circumstances. Since the development of civilizations, running into strangers became common. Strangeness or difference, according to Diamond wasn’t, in and of itself, sufficient reason for problems to arise. Allan Johnson posits that, there is nothing inherently frightening about what we don’t know. If we feel afraid, it isn’t what we don’t know that frightens us, it’s what we think we do know. He goes on to say, when Europeans first came to North America, they weren’t afraid of the people they encountered and the Naïve American response was to welcome the Europeans with open arms.

Having said that, Diamond explained, that one thing has remained consistent in both small tribal societies and large contemporary societies is an obsession with establishing who is in and who is out.

This business of establishing who is in and who is out could lead one to argue that this ultimately leads to racism, so let me stop here and define what I mean when I use the term “racism”.

Being social animals, establishing families, tribes, groups, etc. is in our DNA. This is not the seed of racism. It is ubiquitous, and I would argue, fundamental to being human. From an evolutionary standpoint, like all other primates and other social beings, belonging to a group helped to insure our survival. Individuals coming together to form groups is something we cannot, nor should we avoid.

But we mustn’t conflate the normalcy of social beings living in groups with the inevitability of those groups then engaging in deviant behavior – I place racism in that category – a form of deviance.

When a society embraces and upholds an ideology or set of actions that undermine its overall wellbeing, it is exhibiting symptoms of social illness. Racism is one such social ill.

The concept of race – an artificial construct that attaches varying degrees of value to humans based on their physical characteristics – is relatively new but more important and more telling is that the construction of race and racism aligns with the development of capitalism. It is almost impossible to understand its underpinnings without also discussing economics.

To survive, groups interact with their environment and with other groups in three major ways. This is true in the animal kingdom as well. But sticking to our topic, whether racism is inevitable, I want to bring in the three major ways we interact; parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism.

  • Parasitism – an association between two organisms in which one benefits and the other is harmed.
  • Commensalism – an association between two organisms in which one benefits and the other derives neither benefit nor harm.
  • Mutualism - an association between two organisms in which both benefit. Also, the doctrine that mutual dependence is necessary to social well-being.

Of the three, it is clear where racism resides. In U.S. history, racism, made legitimate by the U.S. Government, provides the justification for whites to take from people of color that which does not belong to them.

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As the late great author and intellectual giant, bell hooks, often said, we live in a first world, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, hegemonic, cis-gendered, patriarchy. This has been the dominant force, globally, for a few hundred years. Perhaps this is why many have come to believe that our only way of interacting with others ultimately and inevitably leads to racism.


CHARLES SPEAKING

In his magnificent book, Confessions of a Philosopher, the late Bryan Magee said, “The greatest gift a formal education can bestow is to develop in us a conception of the world that is not merely an enlargement of our own views and attitudes and interests and assumptions; from others and in the nature of the case we are not able to do this without help from others who are free of our limitations. From this, alas, it follows that the self-educated can never be more than half-educated, a regrettable but inescapable fact.”

Now, I have read most of Bryan Magee’s books, and being self-educated, I accept his argument as stated. I also know from experience that a limitation of formal education is that too many in academia don’t color outside of the lines of their own disciplines. For example, sociologists offer insightful information about human differences from a sociological perspective, but this advice seldom ventures beyond sociology. Historians will posit differences in a historical perspective, and psychologists will do so as well, yet rare are the experts who will venture beyond their own discipline and some who do aren’t careful enough when they go further afield.

Differences in human perspective are about time, archaeology, history, culture, sociology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience. All are required to fully understand the concept of differences, especially racial bias and bigotry, and there may indeed be more that I haven’t considered. My point is that, for some of us with an insatiable level of interest in the subjects we are pursuing, there are no boundaries we are inclined to respect. I am not a scientist and I readily admit that scientific information can become overly complex to the uninitiated, but dogged persistence and a rage to understand can, with the help of scientists, yield insightful results.

Racism from its beginning is a corrupted norm, precisely due to our lack of knowledge about how we evolved as a species to be hypersensitive and hyper-wary about any and all situations that could turn out to be threatening. Strangers or anyone not like us who might be seen as untrustworthy immediately alert us to be cautious. This will occur in milliseconds—we will intuit an impression based on our life experience before we are conscious of what we are witnessing.

So, it should not be surprising that nearly all discussions today about racism, especially the kind that come with accusations about whether one is a racist, are worse than a waste of time. They just drive home mistaken assumptions, and in doing so, they result in emotional angst and disgust, which leads to distrust, resentment, and in many cases, hatred.

It makes perfect sense when you give it some careful consideration that there were thousands of generations of our kind on the menu of large predators or subject to ambush by warring tribes. We are endowed with Stone Age brains when it comes to negotiating our differences with those whom our limbic system tags as outsiders, but we still have the brain power equal to the task of creating Star Trek level technology.

In Privilege, Power, and Difference, author Allan G. Johnson does indeed offer some powerful arguments, but he does so without mentioning anything about human biology and neuroscience, about how our brains work and the fact that we are chemically cocktailed biologically, so to speak, for tribalistic behavior, and neither does Jared Diamond. I have read all of Jared Diamond’s books and I have a great deal of respect for his scholarship, but I am not in the least persuaded by his argument as presented. His point about the Papua New Guinean tribe sitting for hours comparing family history and then finding no common ancestry that they proceed to kill one another is prima facia evidence to me that the suspicions were there all along, suggesting that their brains work just like ours do.

Allan Johnson’s notion that there is inherently nothing frightening about what we don’t know may be truer today than during prehistory, but I would posit that this all depends upon the amount of danger one is exposed to. Go to a strange scary neighborhood because of high crime and see if that applies. Because we were on the dinner menu of large predators for thousands of generations, we evolved with a limbic system that is hyperaware of anything and everything that could be a threat and even small differences in the people we meet are noted by our limbic system, before we are even consciously aware of what is being presented. There is lots of archaeological evidence of violence and aggression in early man and the tribal warfare of Native American tribes in America suggests that violence among people of substantial differences was commonplace.

Diamond’s explanation that one thing that has remained consistent in both small and large tribal societies and large contemporary societies is an obsession with establishing who in in and who is out, makes my point in steroids. We are perpetually obsessively aware of ingroup outgroup designations because we evolved tribalistically. That’s while all the hormonal chemicals are set to the ready in our heads.

I don’t know how Diamond is comfortable with making the claim that we are not wired necessarily to be wary of strangers. Neuroscience demonstrates that as a species that we are biologically obsessed about our differences with strangers as described on pages 46-48 in Evolving in a Dangerous World. Diamond’s experience with modern day isolated tribes of hunter gatherers may indeed be outliers but to me they sound just like us. But if Western mankind is basically prone for being more tribalistic I can live with that.

You write that “Being social animals, establishing families, tribes, groups, etc. is in our DNA. This is not the seed of racism.” I disagree. My take is that differences are precisely seeds of possibilities, that once planted as established differences, all it takes for racism to grow is some incident that becomes too much of a difference and thus, we ostracize, as we evolved biologically to do, via the hormone’s oxytocin and vasopressin. It’s like all we need to do is squabble over a difference to a point we can’t resolve and then comes the contempt and vitriol. After a while hatred takes over and the reasons for the original conflict are forgotten, and disdain takes over for what are considered good reasons. At this point we are just enemies.

I don’t understand why the scientific evidence I have presented is less persuasive than what a couple of scholar’s have said about a subject that they didn’t venture out of their respective disciplines to speculate about. How can they be certain without taking into consideration how our biology and neural wiring affects our relationships with others? They have no biological or neurological data to base their opinions on about how our brains are handing our social transactions with others.

As a species, we are bothered by too much otherness for numerous reasons and when we are presented with information that causes us to doubt the validity of our respective cultural worldviews, it is especially troubling, like Christianity versus Islam. At some level, differences cause conflict, and this can lead to violence, and one once that happens the seeds blossom. I kept asking myself about the question of racism being inevitable while watching Ken Burns trilogy: The U.S. and the Holocaust and the question seemed to answer itself.

But, if we put aside all the above arguments and just ask ourselves why it is that even with good intentions we can’t eliminate implicit racial biases from cropping up continuously in our relations with other people, and I will argue that it because of a failure to understand how our subconscious life experience influences us just enough to put a finger on the scales when we are called upon to make judgments about other people. Racism is a centuries old problem, and while we have made some progress in the past, we are now headed in the wrong direction because of disingenuous and ideologically malicious politics.


SHARON SPEAKING

I'm quite convinced that you and I are not far apart in believing that our brains work in ways that support bias. I’m glad we are having this discussion in this way because it helps me to see where our perspectives shift, and our points diverge.

The more we write, the more clearly, I see it’s likely we’re not discussing the same thing. But I think the “disconnect” between us adds value to this exercise because it illuminates how discussions around race and racism can so easily go off the rails. I’m hoping we will give the reader an opportunity to see how we’ll work this out – I have little doubt we will ultimately come to a point of agreement.

It would be a good thing to define how you are using the word racism and I’ll talk about how I’m using it. Again (just to remind the reader) – this discussion began when Charles gifted me several signed copies of his new paperback, “Evolving in a Dangerous World Made Racism Inevitable”. The jumping off point that led to this back and forth originated with Charles asking my opinion of the book and me responding that I did not agree with the basic premise -- that racism was inevitable. So now is a good time to discuss definitions.


CHARLES SPEAKING

You might add this if it helps

My definition of racism is any act, judgment, or decision which results in a negative action to individuals of any race that can be categorized as racism whether intended or not. Implicit biases are often intuitive assumptions based on our life experience that we have accepted as reality, regardless of the fact, that we might vehemently disagree with them. But the fact that we have accepted these assumptions as being what our respective cultures have accepted as being the way things are, makes it hard not to give them some credence and, in many cases, this will be enough to get a result that can be considered racist.

I don’t believe that race determines human traits at all. I believe human biology predisposes all of us to be wary of degrees of otherness, and I think the evidence is overwhelming that there are limits to our tolerance regarding otherness. As has become blatantly obvious, the countries traditionally open to immigration are apt to balk when the cultural differences reach a critical mass which are perceived to pose a threat to the homeland. 


SHARON SPEAKING

An article ran in the New York Times a couple of years ago about a Black young woman that wanted Webster’s dictionary to revise its entry on racism. In a letter she wrote to the editors of Merriam-Webster, she argued that racism was “prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color”, she said.

More can be said about this very complex issue, and I admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I agree with her. When I use the word “racism” I am thinking of a set of unearned advantages and disadvantages realized and put into action using unjustly acquired power -- justified by the social construct we call “race”. It can take on a life of its own, continuing to render unearned advantages, as it becomes systemic, infused into public policy, culture, etc.

Webster’s has recently improved and expanded its definition of the word racism. It now encompasses elements of power (note the discussion of oppression). Here is a link to the Webster’s online definition.

Here is an extraction from Webster:

Racism:

  1. a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
  2. the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another specifically : WHITE SUPREMACY
  3. a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles

Without the power differential, racism could not operate. It wouldn’t be much more than race-based bias, a somewhat benign human foible. Not until the element of power is added, do we have “racism”, the Frankenstein monster. The racism I speak of is more than individual racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination (intentional or otherwise). Racism is more than the sum of its individual parts. It involves one group having the power, means, and desire to achieve ends that require the systematic exploitation or eradication of another group -- and using it.

In her book, “Reproducing Racism How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage”, law professor and author Daria Roithmayr posits that we have a white monopoly in this country. She compares the dynamics of white advantage to the unfair tactics of giants like AT&T and Microsoft. She brings in discussions of antitrust law putting a spotlight on the reenforcing powers of power.

Dr. Joy DeGruy, a brilliant, author, professor, and speaker, often engages her audience in an exercise that helps to set the stage for a more fruitful experience in the hour or so that she’ll spend discussing racism with them. She first asks, “by a show of hands, how many of you believe that there is such a thing as white racism?”. Just about everyone in the audience raises their hand. She asks them to lower their hands. She then asks how many in the room believe there is such a thing as Black racism. A slightly smaller group raises their hand. After they lower their hands, she asks the audience to tell her where they can see the adverse impact white racism has on the lives of Black people as an entire group. She gets lots of answers – wealth, education, healthcare, employment, criminal justice, housing, etc. Now she moves on to the final question. She asks them to tell her how Black racism adversely impacts the lives of white people in America as an entire group of people. You can hear a pin drop. There are no responses.

It is racism, as defined in these last few paragraphs, that I am talking about when I say that I don’t think racism was inevitable.

Finally, when you said, “My take is that differences are precisely seeds of possibilities, that once planted as established differences, all it takes for racism to grow is some incident that becomes too much of a difference and thus, we ostracize, as we evolved biologically to do, via the hormone’s oxytocin and vasopressin. It’s like all we need to do is squabble over a difference to a point we can’t resolve and then comes the contempt and vitriol.” - I think what you are describing is conflict which, of course, can be small (neighbors squabbling) or huge (war). I would not use your characterization to describe racism because; 1) it does not include the power imbalance; 2) there is no mention of unearned advantages and unearned disadvantages; and finally, 3) your characterization omits the incentive for one group to pursue domination over the other group.

Power is an essential...

Unlike post-apartheid South Africa, where power was shifted to a Black majority or unlike post WWII Germany where there was a power shift after the Nazis got their asses handed to them -- post Civil War America has maintained the engine that keeps racism alive, white supremacist ideology embraced in the highest echelons of power. We live in a land that celebrates its racists, a constant reminder to Black, brown and indigenous people of just where they(we) stand.

I briefly talked about the interconnectedness of capitalism and racism. Racial capitalism might be the next logical step in this discussion, if we have it in us to continue, but that is for another day. For now, here is a great video where civil rights attorney and author Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson and John Stewart talk about power and how it was/is used to reconstitute and further racism.