The aftermath of the disaster in Charlottesville has given the commentariat space to debate a wide range of issues, but most of them deal with racism and hatred. Along with a massive crowd of people who opposed the erasure of Confederate history and who had peacefully assembled to make their voices heard, the gathering this weekend brought out some folks from the darker underbelly of society. There were some actual members of the Klan in attendance and we even saw people from the neo-nazi movement displaying swastikas. (As an aside, and as I mentioned on social media this weekend, this reminded me of a paraphrased quote from my friend Chris Barron. Be careful about calling all conservatives Nazis because you’ll be out of verbal ammunition when the actual Nazis show up.)
These hard core haters are, thankfully, only hanging on in almost immeasurably minuscule numbers in the country today, but the fact is that they are out there. It’s equally undeniable that at a far lower temperature level we still have currents of racial tension showing up in our society. This apparently prompted Sarah Kaplan and William Wan to take to the pages of the Washington Post with an article titled, Why are people still racist? They then attempt to break it all down with some science lessons for their readers. Much of it centers on a rather selective bit of social science dealing with environmental contamination and indoctrination such as this.
“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”
Richeson compares children’s instinctive formation of biases to a student at a new school. “When you arrive at a new high school. You are instinctively trying to figure out who’s cool, who’s not, who’s a nerd, who gets beat up? Kids quickly acquire these associations,” she said.
You can read the entire article to see where they’re going, but it definitely deals mostly with “nature versus nurture” concepts, leaning heavily toward nurture and the environment people are raised in. They also focus pretty much entirely on racism as exemplified by whites. (That’s a frankly insane notion since it exists in all communities as you’ll see in a moment, but that’s an argument for another day.) I’m not going to deny that humans can be and regularly are influenced by their environment during their upbringing. It’s absolutely true. But there’s also a very substantial body of research work out there, not to mention countless examples taken from the pages of history books, which demonstrate that racism is neither a recent development (in historical terms, not just in the modern era) nor unique to America. We just feel as if we see more of it in America because of our construction as a “melting pot” combined with the fact that international media focuses on the United States so much.
A few items to consider on the nature side versus nurture. First of all, anyone working in anthropology as well as psychology will be able to tell you about the concept of Kin Recognition. It’s seemingly burned into our DNA from birth and shows up among virtually any group you test. It also goes far beyond factors as reductive as skin color. We evolved to look after our own first, specifically in terms of immediate family members. But even when there are no family members around, we instinctively seek to protect and defend those who resemble our own “tribe.” Studies done with simulations where subjects have to decide whether or not to shift the track of an oncoming train when people are in danger on the tracks consistently show that most of us will save not only our own family members at the expense of the lives of others, but also people who look more like us. They didn’t learn that at home. They were born with it.
Getting back to that melting pot idea, keep in mind that America in the 20th and 21st centuries is rather unique in terms of our racial cultural blending, particularly in historical terms. Looking at other cultures, you’ll find so much less tolerance for racial mingling that it makes America on its worst day look like paradise. Consider the history of Japan. (That country recently needed to launch a national survey to see just how bad the problem was.) While modern Japan welcomes hordes of visitors for technological advancement as well as tourism, their culture traditionally has fought against any sort of non-Japanese mixing into their society at large. Marriage to non-Japanese people is still hugely frowned upon. And we’re not just talking in terms of race. The unwritten prohibitions against marrying anyone from China or the Korean Peninsula are legendary.
Speaking of the Koreans, the New York Times ran some feature articles a few years back uncovering the struggles of Koreans who try to marry non-Koreans.
Also, to further address that “melting pot” question, pointing to other nations as somehow being idyllic lands where they don’t have the same problems with nasty old racists as we do is a complete red herring. We often hear that Canada is the home of the “nice people” and they don’t have all of these racial problems. True, I suppose, but it’s hard to make that argument without including the uncomfortable fact that 84% of their population is either white or aboriginal. Of the remainder, more than ten percent are Asian. Black Canadians represent less than three percent of the population and Latinos are barely over one percent. So yes… Canada doesn’t have much in the way of race wars, but they also don’t have very evenly sized “teams.”
Most of the rest of the world follows along those lines. America is unique in many ways and one of those is the great experiment of melding together the races in ways unknown earlier in human history. In fact, in the majority of cases where disparate cultures and races first encountered each other it was far from a festival of peace, love and tolerance. Quit the opposite in fact. None of this is said as any sort of “defense” or racism nor an excuse for it. I’m just saying that there’s more to the story than the linked WaPo article suggests and you might want to give this Great American Experiment some more time before we can work out all the bumps along the road.