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.
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.
Oxytocin’s boosting of empathy and prosocial behavior applies only to in-group members. Unfortunately, it appears to do this largely by accentuating the us/them divide. Sapolsky also states we are very easily influenced to perceive someone as “them.”
[…] neurocognitive bases of racism […]
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… Read more »
CORRECTION to inspiring sign at the farm animal sanctuary:
In a world full of people who couldn’t care less, be someone who couldn’t care more!
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… Read more »
Regarding your question where to next, I have many thoughts. I will do my best to keep the ramblings as brief and concise as possible by only offering suggestions that offer the greatest impact from my perspective. Edward posted an outstanding article by George Monbiot entitled How Do We Get Out of This Mess? George suggests building a new political narrative based on findings from the different sciences of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology that conclude humans have an astonishing degree of altruism. George writes, “we possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of… Read more »