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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are We All Still Racists?

Last Week in our discussion group of about ten retired guys with nothing better to do, one member raised the question of racism.  It happened to be just six days before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  He said that he sometimes had trouble accepting blacks in his heart, although he never let his reservations affect his actions.  I said I felt the same way, but another member said he was not bothered by the fact that his ”internal dialog” might contain thoughts that he would not want to express.  In effect, he said his internal dialog was his own business and that as long as his he did the right thing, he had no concerns about being a racist.  He went on to recount how when he finished at Berkeley in 1965, he and his wife took a trip through the south and were dumbstruck when they saw the “Whites Only” signs everywhere they went.   I had the same experience on my first trips to Norfolk, VA in the 1950s when I had to report there for midshipman cruises.
One of our members asked us what our reaction would be if we saw a group of black youth congregated on the sidewalk in the direction we were walking.  I guess we all agreed that we would probably cross the street, but some of us noted that we would do the same thing if it were a group of white kids.  No one thought to mention that blacks would do the same thing we would in both cases.  I guess it’s correct that your are O.K. as long as you do the right thing and treat everyone equally, but I started wondering if we would ever get to a point where we were truly non-biased in our thoughts as well as our actions.  This made me think of three books I read this summer, Malcolm Gladwell’s  Blink, Edmund O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Gladwell talks about how we make many of our decisions subconsciously on the basis of experience, Wilson talks about cooperative social organization, and Pinker’s basic theme is that we are evolving toward more rational and unprejudiced beings as a result of the Enlightenment, literacy and scientific development.
I could take the themes of those three books and construct a hopeful scenario for a future without racial prejudice in a society based on reason and ever higher levels of abstract thinking.  But maybe not.  I have told my kids this story too often:   When my father was in his 50s he mentioned to me that he was concerned about his father, because Ben, who had spent much of his adult life fighting for the rights of others – the miners at Ludlow and Hispanics in southern Colorado --  in his old age was prone to making anti-Semitic statements.  Twenty years later my father, then in his 70s, who had championed racial equality as a journalist and labor leader, suddenly had nothing good to say about anyone who wasn’t of Anglo Saxon extraction, especially Jews, blacks and Hispanics.  I think he only held back on Asians because my wife is Japanese.  I swore that I would never let this happen to me.  The good news is that I’m sure the internal dialogs of my children are very different from mine and there is a glimmer of hope that someday this will be a world without prejudice.  It will take some effort and persuading.
Just this morning, I was reading two different things, a passage in Ken Follett’s Winter in the World which describes how so many in Germany in the 1930s accepted fascism and the loss of individual rights that went with it and a review by Alan Ryan in the August 15, 2013 issue of the NYRB of Lawrence Friedman’s The Lives of Erich Fromm, Love’s Prophet.  Fromm explored the different ways in which we “evade the anxieties of freedom.”  He was interested in the contrast between  premodern Western society, which he thought provided psychic security but left little room for individuality, and the modern society that came into existence after the Reformation and the rise of the capitalist economy.  The latter, he said, provided a “negative freedom,” a loss of security and the promotion of an individualism that throws us on our own resources in a competitive and frightening environment.  I think this applies to what happened in Germany.  People chose what they thought was security over individual freedom. They were not alone.  In general it seems that the middle class tends to choose security over freedom.  I probably did it myself by choosing a lifetime career in government.
Egad, how do I tie all this together?  I think the heart of our prejudices goes all the way back to when society was organized in bands.  Like chimps, we were loyal to the hierarchy in our own bands and aggressive toward all others.  We’re a lot more organized socially and far more developed intellectually than we were in prehistoric times, but we are still carrying vestiges of those prehistoric drives.  I think that explains where prejudices come from.   The Germans of the 1930s bought into the holocaust because it didn’t conflict with basic drives left over from pre-Enlightenment times.   The hope for the future is that we can reach a society wide level of intellectual development that will enable us all to live as free individuals who respect the rights of all others.

1 comment:

  1. I received this comment by email. I completely agree. We need to get beyond all forms of prejudice and discrimination. jb

    Having recently celebrated the 55th anniversary of my marriage, I've had a long time to consider race and inter-racial relationships. We were married in 1958, shortly before leaving Japan for my next Naval assignment at Kingsville, Texas , where the principal ethnic group was Mexican-American (now referred to as "Latinos").

    Mu wifes principal culture shock upon arriving in Kingsville was being spoken to in Spanish. The local Latinos, who had little experience with Japanese, assumed that she was also Latina. In fact, the distribution of her mitochondrial DNA type (Haplogroup D) among Native Americans is comparable to its 18% distribution among Native Japanese.

    I suggest that we are showing our age(s) by focusing on race. Suggested reading: Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, by Kenan Malik (Oneworld Publications, 2008). Malik blames the "cult of multiculturalism" for focusing upon insignificant differences among populations, leading us to typecast complex communities on the basis of a single characteristic, such as color or creed.

    We can blame a Swedish taxonomist, Carl von Linne, who identified the four races of man in 1740: Europeans were "White," Native Americans "Red," Asians "Yellow", and Africans "Black." Although he did not place different values upon the color-coded races, European philosophers wasted little time in making his classifications the basis of conferring racial superiority upon the European Whites.

    It will require a few more generations to purge our American culture of racial stereotyping. The greater question though, is not "racial," but how to deal with religious differences, and intolerance within the world of Islam. Perhaps one can find hope in the history of Christianity -- which, when it was the age of Islam today, manifested many of the terrorist tendencies of which today's Islamists are guilty. Let us hope that Islam will follow Christianity's example of ultimately embracing tolerance.

    Sorry, but I just can't get excited about a "racial" discussion!