By Harold DeRienzo
How will 2015 be remembered? Will it be viewed as the Year of ISIS, or the Year of the Beginning of the End of ISIS? Will it be seen as the year that Republican obstructionism and anti-government rhetoric came home to roost, personified in the Presidential run of Donald Trump? Will it be the year when transgender rights found its stride? Will it be seen as the year when the Democratic Party rekindled its progressive roots in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement? Perhaps 2015 may be remembered in any of these ways, among others. But I believe 2015 will be remembered as the year that institutional racism was brought front and center to the consciousness of the American public. I am reminded of growing up to daily evening news accounts of urban riots, civil rights demonstrators clashing with local (mostly Southern) law enforcement officials, and images of war in that distant land of Vietnam, with daily reminders of the cost of that war in the caskets that were carried on a daily basis into Dover Air Force Base [the practice of allowing the media into these tragic outcomes of war was curtailed in 1991 and stopped altogether in 2003]. Just as these impactful invasions of private space in the 1960s facilitated the end of Jim Crow and the Vietnam War, along with passage of federal laws against housing and employment discrimination, and more, one can only hope that having our current private spaces invaded with recordings of what can only be described as public executions of black men (and at least one boy) will turn public resentment into the political action to end these incidents, or at least eliminate them as common occurrences. But will direct government action geared towards better police training, requirements for police body-cams, and enhancement of carried police enforcement tools falling short of deadly force (think pepper spray or tasers) eliminate racism, or will such reforms simply ameliorate its official manifestation? Is racism a human condition that cannot be overcome? Are we genetically wired to be racists? And, if not, what are the barriers that we need to overcome to truly become a post-racial society?
In response to the events of 2015, a new movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, was born, forging an uncomfortable, yet potentially powerful, alliance between establishment civil rights leaders and disaffected millennials of color, including millennials of non-color. Anger festered with many white members of society claiming that “all lives matter,” without regard to the role of race in social relations and how that plays out in a society of increasing social isolation, political disenfranchisement, criminalization based on race and wealth, and economic inequality. Anger has also reached a boiling point with many black members of society, where interpretations of police use of force, and calls for action, reach levels that would make Malcolm X seem moderate. [One African American commentator, in a post shared, and re-shared, on Facebook, compared police shootings of black men as “crimes of passion,” further postulating that the only “passion” that explains the 16 bullets that were fired at Laquan MacDonald in Chicago is enjoyment.]
These societal trends will play out in any number of different ways. We could well see a further fracturing of society along racial and economic lines, and a return to multiple societies – with the elite, white, black, Muslim, and other minorities making up separate societies within this country. Were this to happen, if it is not already happening, this would represent the most basic betrayal of all this country is supposed to stand for. We could see social unrest rise to a level that promotes sanctioned demagoguery, possibly leading to some form of totalitarianism. Or, and hopefully, we could see society evolve in a manner that treats all persons with dignity and respect, where the role of citizens and their governments is to manage economic, social, and political institutions and processes in a way that provides opportunities for all to participate in meaningful, substantive, humane and rewarding ways.
But what would be needed for such an evolution to occur? And is it possible?
As alluded to above, a threshold question might be: are we genetically wired to be racist? Or, is racism learned behavior? I would certainly be inclined to answer these questions with a resounding No and Yes, respectively. But unfortunately, the issue is much more complicated than that. Although, a better appreciation for what makes the issue complicated may lead to the approaches necessary to overcome racism.
The field is in flux and there is no consensus, but there are reliable schools of thought that postulate that through evolution, social and cultural norms that enhance survival are passed down on a hereditary basis from one generation to the next. In many ways, the history of human civilization is a history that, in part, involves so-called gene-culture evolution. The most striking example is with regard to dairy products. All mammals are lactose intolerant beyond the age of nursing, but through early human settlements where animals were domesticated and survival was better assured through the processing of milk products, our genetic makeup adapted to this cultural advancement. In other words, cultural development that favored the survival prospects of groups engaged in domestication, resulted in a modification in our genetic structure to allow for the prolonged consumption of milk products within our life cycles. As far as I can tell (see writings by Jonathan Haidt and E. O. Wilson, for reference), this is scientific fact. As such, is it such a stretch to believe that habits and customs that caused the survival of humans in different groupings have also been passed down genetically?
Again referring to the biologist, E.O. Wilson, if we look back at successful societies, as against those that lacked success, the selfish person always prevailed within the group, yet in prevailing on a personal level, his specific group suffered. Whereas, in truly altruistic societies, the altruistic individual may often fail (die), but the group is successful and the altruistic gene (or allele) is passed along to the next generation. Building on Darwin, and his own extensive biological research, E.O. Wilson makes the point that we are wired to identify with specific groups that we belong to. We are genetically wired to favor our particular group over others, thinking our own group to be superior. We are so wired because the success of our species was dependent upon both inter-group competition (natural selection, if you will, within groups), and intra-group competition, against rivals, and in such competitions, those societies that were most united and possessing altruistic characteristics, were the groups that became most successful throughout history.
So, to get back to the question of racism, we may not be genetically wired to be racists, but it is a short path from self-group-bias to other-group-hatred, if the proper conditions exist. And what are those conditions? The answer is to be found in the very conditions that serve as barriers to an inclusive, equitable, and open society where all lives are valued and the job of our political and other institutions is to ensure that every member of society has some productive role that is recognized by all, regardless of race or ethnic background, as serving the common good.
More about that later, but the takeaway here is that racism is not a genetic condition, but an outgrowth of genetically driven instincts developed to ensure our survival as a species. But more importantly, I would maintain that racism becomes manifest (converting from simple bias) under conditions of ignorance, stress, insecurity, and isolation, especially when these attributes are fed with information by demagogues who advance appeals to our most base, passionate, tribal instincts.
Sincerest thanks to all of our supporters and boosters and colleagues in the struggle for equity and justice. All the best in the New Year and please look for our forthcoming Annual Report that we hope to have out in a couple of weeks.