Evolutionary psychology says racism is in our genes — a genetic adaptation that helps groups survive by favoring themselves over others. Skin color cues us in to who’s “in” and who’s “out.” (Yet the most prosperous areas of the world are those that cooperate and trade with each other?)
When I explain the theory, my students are appalled. (Though they readily accept evolutionary psych when it comes to explaining supposed sex differences.)
I once wrote a comment questioning evolutionary psychology on Slate and got the following response:
And what about all of those studies on doctors that found they treat patients differently because of race? What about those studies that show that we show preference to people wearing the same color of shirts as us?
Then shouldn’t children prefer parents who have their same hair/eye color? Not in my case. My mom has brown eyes and very light skin like me and my dad has green eyes and darker skin. Yet as a child I preferred him because mom was the disciplinarian.
And doctors could treat patients differently because they learn prejudice and not because they are genetically programmed to discriminate.
You also have to wonder why so many brown-haired, brown-eyed people have a preference for blonde, blue-eyed looks if our genes cause us to prefer our own type. But then, we’re all bombarded with messages that teach us that blue eyes and blond hair are best, at least on women.
Relatedly, about half of the Black people who take Harvard’s test of unconscious prejudice show a preference for Whites. If evolutionary psychology is right, shouldn’t they have a preference for Blacks? But again, Black Americans (just like the rest of us) are barraged with unfortunate messages that White is prettier, smarter, and less criminal.
Meanwhile, some people show “no preference” for either race when they take Harvard’s “implicit” test of unconscious bias.
Or consider the most recent presidential elections. The younger a person was, the more likely she or he cast a ballot for Barack Obama. Was there a mass genetic mutation that caused younger voters to be less racist? Or has society changed enough through the years that young people have simply learned less racism?
Evolutionary psychology says racism is in our genes. Looks more like it’s learned.
You inherited you grandmother’s eyes. Did you inherit her racism, as well?
February is Black History Month
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“More guns, fewer hoodies” and we’d all be safer, Gail Collins advised in a New York Times piece after Trayvon Williams was gunned down for “eating skittles while black” – and while wearing said hoodie – in a gated community. A clear threat that had to be stopped.
That’s right. Guns don’t kill people, hoodies do: Trayvon Williams’ “hoodie killed him as surely as George Zimmerman did,” claimed Geraldo Rivera (who later apologized).
Sounds familiar. When women are raped short skirts become the culprit.
Yet few rape victims are wearing short skirts. And even nicely dressed black men can create fear. Journalist Brent Staples noticed that people got out of his way when he nonchalantly walked about. Amazed at his ability to alter public space, he tried humming Mozart to project his innocence. Seemed to help.
But why aren’t pricey cars, fancy suits and expensive watches blamed when rich, white men get robbed? What thief could resist?
Why? Because making more powerless members of society the culprit is meant to distract from the sins of the powerful. It’s women’s fault if men rape them, and it’s black men’s fault if lighter men kill them.
In another example, some blamed liberals for foolishly using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to help Blacks and Hispanics “buy homes they couldn’t afford,” leading to the banking crises that nearly drove the U.S. economy off a cliff.
What really happened is that rich bankers gave rich campaign contributions to government officials, who in gratitude disposed of pesky regulations. That helped bankers get mega-rich by devising complex financial packages that no one could comprehend.
Used to be that when someone bought a home bankers made sure they’d get paid back. But under deregulation it didn’t matter because the loan was sold to someone else. And that investor sold the loan again. And financial packages were created and sold, composed of fractions of many people’s mortgage loans. They were rated AAA since they were 1) diversified – and hence, “safe” investments and 2) the housing market never goes down. (Yeah, right!)
Fannie and Freddie entered the process late, thinking they’d better join in or lose out.
When the housing market dropped and people couldn’t afford their homes, or sell them for a profit, the banks began collapsing. Lucky for them, the taxpayers bailed them out (or the whole economy likely would have collapsed).
Did deregulation get blamed for the fiasco? By some. But plenty of the “powers that be” — and especially “hate radio” — blamed Blacks and Latinos.
Because blaming more powerless members of society distracts from the sins of the powerful.
The crime does not lie with the man who pulls the trigger, nor with the man who rapes, and certainly not with the fat cat who pays to rig the game. No, the crime lies with those who wear hoodies, short skirts and who bank while black or brown.
More than one in three South African men admits committing rape, one in seven has joined a gang rape, and more than three quarters admit committing violence against women.
These “reasons” may only get at surface issues. What else is going on?
Rachel Jewkes, a lead researcher on the study of violence in South Africa, feels that racism lies behind the abuse.
Rape holds a sexual component, but it is essentially about power. When a large population is oppressed, say through racism – even as manhood is defined as “dominant and powerful” – men may use rape as a weapon to gain a sense of personal empowerment. Rapists are often trying to bridge a gap between their impotent selves and the dominant men they seek to be. Imagine the control they feel when they restrain, take over, and invade another person’s body. Imagine how high and mighty they feel in creating humiliation.
Gay bashing is another weapon whereby some men try to create a sense of male superiority. If women act like men (sexually/stereotypically) how can men keep their sense of dominance? Hence, the need for “corrective rape” in South Africa that seeks to turn lesbians straight.
In one attack Millicent Gaika was beaten and raped for five hours as her assailant screamed, “I know you are a lesbian. You are not a man, you think you are, but I am going to show you, you are a woman. I am going to make you pregnant.” Since the women are often murdered “correction” sounds less likely than gay-bashing as motive.
Others were simply bored. So the eroticized violence of patriarchy comes in handy: Oh, let’s have some fun!
This is helped when women are seen as sex objects, and not people who have their own lives, goals, thoughts and emotions. When women become nothing but objects for sexual pleasure, it’s no wonder that one third of the rapists said they did not feel guilty.
So here we have powerless men beaten down by racism who are trying to feel powerful, who live in a world where violence against women is eroticized, and where women are seen as mere objects. A recipe for epidemic rape.
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How does racism hurt racists? In many ways, actually. Here’s one:
The case of Emmett Till.
In 1955 this 14-year-old African-American left Chicago to visit his cousin in Mississippi.
One day his cousin dared him to flirt with a white woman. Accepting, he whistled at a woman who was working at a grocery counter, and called her “baby.”
Later that night the woman’s husband and his half-brother hunted Emmett down, kidnapped him, and the torture began. They cut off one of his ears, gouged out an eye, and put a bullet through his head before throwing him into a river.
The men were arrested. At the trial witnesses placed them at the site where Emmett was tortured, and the two men admitted the kidnapping.
But they faced a jury of white men in a Mississippi courtroom. After deliberating for less than an hour, they acquitted the case. One juror told a reporter, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink a pop, it wouldn’t have took that long.”
We easily see how racism hurt the young minority in this case. But how did it also hurt the white people who were involved?
When one person can torture another, with no conscience or concern, and when others dismiss the behavior, we see that racism dehumanizes its target, but it also dehumanizes the racist.
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In The Republic, Socrates asked whether we should be good and just, and why.
A listener suggested that if we are trusted we’ll do better in our business and personal relationships.
But what if no one knows you are a good person?
“The gods will know, and reward us,” observed another.
But what if the gods don’t know that you’re good? Socrates pressed.
Later, I read Emerson on the same topic. His Minister had lectured that while the wicked are often successful, and while the righteous can be miserable, at least compensation would be made in the next life.
Emerson felt that the fallacy lay in conceding that the base estimate of the market constitutes success, and assuming that justice is not done now.
What really makes us happy? Doing ill to others? Stepping on others so we can get ahead?
What Emerson and Socrates were getting at was made more real to me when I heard a man talk about why he had left the KKK.
He and his wife had become so filled with hatred in that organization that misery had overtaken their lives. They left because acting hatefully, hurting others, had ended up mostly hurting themselves.
As it turns out, when we work to harm others we harm ourselves.
As Women’s History month winds down I’d like to ponder the difference between being powerful and merely feeling powerful. Too often people chase the feeling and give up the real thing.
I sensed the phenomenon in a highly publicized event last year.
Last October a Yale fraternity chanted “No means yes, yes means anal” in front of the campus Women’s Center. One man concluded it was all meant to stir up feminazis. “The sole purpose of that building,” he opined, “is to give hatemongering academic feminists a base to spread their propaganda and recruit new members… They most likely (chanted there) because feminazis always go out of their way to harm men. Just about every policy implemented by academic feminazis is meant to incite misandry and marginalize men.”
Interesting tactic. “Who looks worse?” I asked.
“The guys will come across as arseholes, but they don’t care. All they care about is stirring up the feminazis.”
The commenter has a blog which seems to have the same goal. I just don’t know whether any feminazis go to his site so that he can stir them up.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that his theory could be true. Do you think the Yale frat staged a blow to feminism? Or to sexism, instead?
While some seek to feel strong by chanting rape fantasies, real rapists and wife batterers are involved in the same loop. They want to feel powerful, so they beat down a woman or invade her body. Or both. They feel dominant in the moment. But their potency is actually pretty limited. And the acts are only destructive, not constructive.
Any time gang members beat or kill someone they probably feel formidable. But in the long run, how mighty are they sitting in jail, or dead?
A few early feminists made the error of feeling powerful over the real thing when they spewed man-hating rhetoric. In the moment they likely felt pretty tough. But the strategy did not create real muscle and feminists at large gave it up. For the effect was to repel potential female and male allies, alike.
Now we are left with the brand “feminazis.”
To all of the above I ask, why don’t you do something with your efforts and your lives that are both powerful and constructive, instead of beating others down in a basically weak attempt to feel better about yourselves?
And next time you seek power, consider whether you are being powerful only in your own head.
March is Women’s History Month