Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.

Two Levels of Racism
1. Population Group Level
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.

About Mark H

Information technologist, knowledge management expert, and writer. Academic background in knowledge management, social and natural sciences, information technologies, learning, educational technologies, and philosophy. Married with one adult child who's married and has a teenage daughter.

5 thoughts on “Are We Racists?

  1. Mark and the BMAI crew…I will add to the discussion with my own ramblings and plenty of questions.

    Racism placed in context with other types of discrimination such as ageism, ableism, sexism, speciesism, religious imperialism, nationalism, etc. forms a hierarchy of sorts. I will call it the blindspot hierarchy. Below is an example. This hierarchy is not intended to be a complete list, rather, it is intended to be an illustration.

    My god is above your god
    God above humans
    Humans above nature and the environment
    Humans above other sentient beings
    Men above women
    Adults above children
    America above other countries
    Christians above other religious affiliations
    Christians above LBGTQ people
    Wealthy over the poor
    Corporate profit over citizens
    Whites over native indians, blacks, latinos, etc.
    Winners over losers
    Able bodied over disabled

    These hierarchical beliefs drive a litany of inequities in our society and bolster abuse of power on many fronts.

    Some questions to consider:
    Why is the blindspot hierarchy completely obvious to some people and others “seem” oblivious to the hierarchy?
    Why do some people pick and choose facets of the blindspot hierarchy as acceptable and other facets as not acceptable?
    When presented with overwhelming data on facets of the hierarchy clearly indicating a problem, such as racism, why do people refuse to accept the data?
    Why are some humans and non-humans part of the moral community and others are so easily ousted?
    Why do some of these beliefs seemingly disappear among combatants on the same side during fire fights when both their lives are at stake?
    Why do some of these beliefs seemingly disappear during natural disasters when lives are threatened?

    When considering this blindspot hierarchy think of a homeless, drug addicted, black, transgendered female. Do you think she might feel the weight of the blindspot hierarchy? The attempted suicide rate for this type of person is estimated at 54% by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It’s 4.6% for the population as a whole.

    Do people really need to be convinced that racism (and other discrimination) exists or are the systems supporting racism (and other facets of the hierarchy) just more evidence of the level people in power and their followers are willing to go to to ensure things don’t change? In other words, are they doing whatever is necessary to maintain the power structure and protect “self” interests and dehumanizing beliefs? Consider the level of effort required to end slavery, provide women the right to vote, end desegregation, and provide the LBGTQ community equal rights.

    Throughout history there are clear examples of people who are solely focused on amassing control, power and wealth. In this quest, they leverage control, power and wealth in creative, abusive and diabolical ways (at the cost to many others) to achieve their mission. The problem is the mission never stops because there is never enough control, power or wealth to satiate them. The blindspot hierarchy is required for these missions to persist.

    Is it that those supporting and promoting the discrimination (abuse) are not aware or is it that they just don’t care (self interest is more important)? Consider the case of Harvey Weinstein walking into the room naked because he wants to have sex with an actress who has no interest in him. Dr. George Simon, in his book Character Disturbance, uses the example of a high school boy knocking the books out of a class mate’s hands. A teacher witnesses what happens and calls him on it. The perpetrator refuses to admit that he did it. The teacher stays on him until the perpetrator finally admits that he did it. Then the perpetrator blames the class mate for his actions. The perpetrator avoids responsibility as long as possible. Once cornered the perpetrator shifts blame to the victim and continues to avoid responsibility. The perpetrator is fully aware of his actions he just doesn’t care about the impact of his actions. This is a sad reality and many people operate in this mode.

    Why do people believe in (adopt) facets or all of this hierarchy? Does it have to do with an inability to think critically? Consider these reasons for believing something is true regardless of the facts:
    “It’s true because I believe it”
    “It’s true because we believe it”
    “It’s true because I want to believe it”
    “It’s true because I have always believed it”
    “It’s true because it is in my vested interest to believe it”

    Within the cognitive science and neuroscience arena it is estimated that 98% of thought is unconscious and emotions are at the helm. However, there is a pandemic of what I call “emotion” phobia. People go to extreme lengths to avoid experiencing emotions such as fear, shame, anxiety, and anger. There are a myriad of tactics and distractions people use to either repress or offload these emotions rather than feel them. There are organizations and multi-billion dollar industries dedicated to offering distractions. Why are people terrified to experience these emotions? Would more people demand change if they were actually feeling and experiencing the effects of the blindspot hierarchy? Do people have to feel in order to experience empathy? If people aren’t feeling emotion how vulnerable (empathic, gentle, compassionate, authentic) can they be? Are genuinely vulnerable people more or less likely to adopt more or less of the blindspot hierarchy?

    Studies show empathy rapidly declines when people are too comfortable. Are too many people in the US too comfortable and as a result the collective empathy is at too low of a level for them to care and effect change? Consider when people make the biggest life changing transitions in their life. Does it happen when they are comfortable or when they are under some form of distress?

    Is there a component of desensitization to the acceptance of the blindspot hierarchy? It happens so frequently that it is deemed normal, even expected? Do corporations, municipal and federal government, police forces, religions, etc. contribute to the desensitization?

    Has our society become too tolerant of intolerance? Here is quote from Karl Popper that sums it up:
    “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
    Is the tsunami of cultural relativism and perspective taking affecting society’s ability to look at discrimination objectively and call out abuse. Consider an extreme example: genital mutilation of women. Is it control and abuse or is it cultural tradition. I’m sure I know the perspective of the men promoting this cultural tradition. Does their perspective negate the fact that abuse is occurring?

    Humans have an overwhelming propensity to be obedient to perceived authority figures regardless of the harm caused to others. The Milgram obedience to authority studies have proven consistently over time people will follow the directives of perceived authority figures even when the consequences are lethal to the targeted person (people) at a rate of 65% compliance. The compliance rate goes to 90% when participants witness someone similar to them carrying out the directives ahead of themselves. Consider the Rwandan genocide or the Jonestown massacre as testimony to the power of this phenomenon. It stands to reason if the societal authority figures are supporting or condoning discrimination they are offering explicit and/or implicit directives to continue with the discrimination. Is this phenomenon having an impact on the number of people accepting the blindspot hierarchy?

    What happens when people stand up and speak out about the blindspot hierarchy and its abuses? There is personal cost and personal risk. Does this limit the number of people willing to call out discrimination? I think of Joe Darby, a young MP private in the army who exposed the atrocities occurring at Abu Graihb. His mother, wife and he had to go into protective custody for 3 years because of death threats from people in the military and his home town.

    The concept of bystander apathy posits that the more people that are observing abuse the less will stand up and speak out. It’s the “I’m not about to get involved and put myself at risk” approach. Is this phenomenon playing a part in the number of people accepting the blindspot hierarchy?

    Are people’s ability to feel and think clearly affected by substances labeled as food that are loaded with chemicals that impact neurological functioning and fats that significantly mediate blood flow and negatively effect cellular assimilation of glucose (brain fuel)? Stack on top of that chemicals in detergents, cologne, perfume, makeup, cleaners, soaps, shampoos, and on and on. I’m curious if this has any impact on people’s ability to function with mental acuity and emotional clarity? Note: Environmental Working Group studies have demonstrated 200 chemicals in the umbilical cords of 10 newborns in different locations in the US.

    The big question for me is have people embraced the lies embedded in the blindspot hierarchy through misunderstanding, confusion, fear of emotions, fear of vulnerability, familial, community, cultural and societal influence, blind acceptance, apathy and trauma as a byproduct of the aforementioned factors?

    Are we hardwired to accept some or all of the blindsport hierarchy? Are we hardwired for racism? There is clearly evidence to support evolutionary influence. On the other hand, there are studies of very young children ages 18 months to 24 months that demonstrate empathic altruistic behavior. The results of the studies are quite compelling. The studies on altruism, compassion and empathy out of the Max Planck Institute and Stanford CCARE indicate that humans are also biologically inclined to help and extend altruism to others. There are also studies of indigenous cultures that are significantly emotionally advanced. The blindspot hierarchy is virtually nonexistent. These communities operate from an interdependent life philosophy. The community realizes their lives are interdependent on each other as well as interdependent with the environment and other sentient non-human beings.

    I resist the hardwired concept and label. Evolution offers people the capacity to be vulnerable. People have the capacity to be affectively empathic to others of different ethnicity and culture, empathic to the environment that hosts life, empathic to other sentient beings. People have the capacity to align beliefs, thoughts and behavior with their empathy. It is by no means an easy road to travel in this society because that is not what is rewarded. Regardless, there are plenty of exemplars who have demonstrated that the “I” consciousness can be transcended into a “we” consciousness. There are also countless examples of everyday people becoming heroes in the wake of a moral crisis or supporting people in need when there is personal cost and personal risk for acting altruistically. Science has also been uncovering what is occurring biologically in people who operate from the powerful tend and befriend mindset. The point is the capacity to be empathic and vulnerable exists in nearly everyone.

    I saw an inspiring sign at a farm animal sanctuary this past Saturday:
    In a world who couldn’t care less, be someone who couldn’t care more!

    1. Excellent thoughts and questions! Thank you for the thoughtful response.

      I agree that our evolved obsession with social hierarchies and identity/membership must be at or near the center of our deeply embedded inclusion/exclusion thinking. I think it can be much subtler than the example of the bully at school. I think it is not uncommon for people to be so thoroughly enmeshed in pervasive, lifelong systems of inequality that they can’t see how their perception is warped. The closer they are to the top, the less likely to be able to see their elevation as a product of the system rather than an indication of their ‘natural,’ deserved place.

      I agree an ’emotion phobia’ afflicts many, but I also see a growing tendency to ‘flame’ in social media and in public demonstrations. Is the rage a dam breaking, a standard operating mode, an altered state invoked by certain social pressures, opportunities, and expected rewards? Likely some of each.

      There must be brain effects from the soup of chemicals we breathe, drink, eat, and absorb via skin, but the complexity of tracing specific cause-and-effect relationships seems immense. It’s an area worthy of immediate cautionary action and focused research. There’s an application for Watson and other advanced AI systems that can identify correlations from oceans of data on interacting factors.

      Good discussion. Where to next?

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