Are We Genetically Wired to Be Racists? By Harry DeRienzo

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are delighted to publish the second installment of Harry DeRienzo’s essays on racism.  This second of a three-part essay is entitled, “Are we Genetically Wired to be Racists?”  It is interesting and thought provoking but like all treatments of such a complicated and emotionally-charged topic, there is a need for other perspectives and follow up discussions.  As mentioned in the essay, no one has a monopoly on “truth” when it comes to racism.  We welcome comments and other points of view. 

Also, we encourage you to re-read Harry’s February essay entitled “Money and Politics” and Brian Sahd’s response “Power and Self Interest” regarding the February Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  In light of last night’s debate, the essays continue to have relevance, particularly with regard to the lingering question of whether there is an explicit quid pro quo in politics (“take my money and protect my interests”) or whether the system itself is rigged.  Just as in February, Senator Sanders failed to add specifics to his attack of Secretary Clinton with his response when asked if he could name one situation where there was a quid pro quo between Secretary Clinton and her supporters.  He could have brought up the fact that as First Lady, Clinton did push her husband to veto a bankruptcy bill that was very anti-consumer.  But as Senator, she voted in favor of a similar bill.  But he did not.  Maybe he did not bring it up because it is still difficult to directly link her action to her support by Wall Street, the ABA, and others.  Maybe he just forgot, and reverted to his default position of the system being rigged.  Still, this remains a timely topic and we welcome comments.

(A Continuation of the New Year’s Eve Essay, 2015 — The Year of [Fill in the Blank])

            By Harold DeRienzo

Are We Genetically Wired to Be Racists?  In my New Year’s Eve blog I ask that question and the answer I give is both depressing and hopeful.  To understand human evolutionary history is to acknowledge a likely link between the potential for racism and our survival and success as a species.  Relying mostly on scientific work in the area of gene-culture co-evolution, and on the work of E. O. Wilson in particular, there is a case to be made that through evolution, social and cultural norms that enhance survival are passed down on a hereditary basis from one generation to the next.  The most famous example is with regard to dairy products.  All mammals become lactose intolerant beyond weaning age, but part of the success of our species is based upon settlement, cultivation, domestication of farm animals and the genetic adaptation of our bodies to benefit from a diet that is to a large extent based upon consumption of animal milk.  Taking this example a step further, our success as a species is also (or maybe mostly) dependent upon our learned capacity to identify with, survive and prosper through distinct, identifiable groupings of human organization.  Relying again on the research of E.O. Wilson, there is a very solid case to be made that we are wired to identify with specific groups that we belong to and to favor our particular group over others, thinking our own group to be superior based upon this form of gene-culture co-evolution.

So, does this make us all racists by nature?  No.  But we should recognize the inherent bias for group identification that we all may carry within us and that it is, as I stated in my earlier essay on racism, a “short path from self-group-bias to other-group-hatred, if the proper conditions exist.”  What are those conditions and under what circumstances will racism become manifest (converting simple bias to outright racist behavior)?  In that essay, I identified conditions such as ignorance, stress, insecurity, and isolation, exacerbated by fear and demagogic appeals to our most base, passionate, and tribal instincts.

To be clear, to speak of “inherent bias” is to state simply that we operate as human beings, predisposed towards certain attitudes that reflect in choices and behavior.  But bias can be overcome through education, exposure, an open mind and recognition of the benefits accruing from, or detriments avoided by, failing to overcome these inherent predispositions.  If I am pre-disposed towards having ice cream, it is not all that difficult to convince me that frozen yogurt may be a better alternative.  But I have to be open and willing to consider an alternative.  If I am pre-disposed towards jogging, and it is clear that jogging is having an adverse impact on my knees, it should not be all that difficult to convince me that swimming or bicycling represents a better alternative.  But I need, if swimming were to be a preferred alternative, access to a pool.  And if bike-riding was the preferred alternative, I would need a bike, and possibly bike paths or bike lanes.

The point is that bias can be overcome, but simple intellectual appeals are not enough.  There also needs to be a recognized benefit, access to realizing that benefit, and some motivation (either positive – recognized benefit, or negative – recognized detriment) for overcoming our pre-dispositions.

Overcoming bias will be left to a future essay.  It is the purpose of this second of three essays to explore some of the factors that I believe turn inherent bias into reactive racist behavior.  These factors are presented to stimulate discussion.  No one, especially when dealing with such a sensitive and complex topic, has a monopoly on truth, so it is sincerely hoped that this essay  generates discussion, alternative points of view, expanded perspective and disagreement where warranted.

The few factors explored in this essay are isolation/dis-integration, religion, economic insecurity, and race-blind conventions.

Social Isolation/Dis-Integration:

In terms of outcome and vulnerability that can easily lead to a manifestation of our baser instincts, I view these conditions – isolation and dis-integration – as two sides of the same coin. There is little doubt that our society has become and still is becoming increasingly atomized. With changes in family composition, changes in workforce organization and demographics, extended commutes, technology, decreased “down time” and newly available active and passive recreational pursuits that place a premium on individual activity, isolation is becoming the social (or maybe better stated as the anti-social) norm. And it is in our isolation, passively and individually consuming culture rather than collectively producing it, that we become subjects ripe for manipulation.  In her seminal work, the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explained how the first task of a despotic regime is to isolate people, destroy public space and fill the void with paranoia, fear and suspicion.  In this way, as Goebbels mastered for more than a decade before and during the Second World War, the public can, in its isolation, become massified and manipulated.  In his extensive criticism of what he saw in this country as illusory and romanticized pluralism, C. Wright Mills took the position that the power elite ran this country due to the vacuum left by a disengaged citizenry – where the varying, diverse and widespread publics necessary for a functioning democracy were replaced with mass publics and a massified culture.  As he stated in his essay, Mass Society and Liberal Education, the “public,” which he defines as a society where as many people express opinions as receive them, is never fully realized, but still falsely represented as prevalent in American society.  In contrast to an engaged and active public, in a “mass” society, “the community of publics becomes an abstracted collectivity of individuals who receive impressions from mass media.”  Mills proposes that in a massified society, the dominant type of communication is “by the formal media and the publics become media markets, by which I mean all those exposed to the contents of given mass media.”  Modern marketing techniques seek to take advantage of this isolation to manipulate consumer choices.  Regardless of motivation and degree of harm, manipulation is dehumanizing and dangerous, setting the stage for the mass appeal of demagoguery, most conveniently for appeal to race-based demagoguery.

Everything we do through technology is tracked, organized, sold and disseminated. Advertisements and solicitations are then geared towards our activities. Our proclivities are thereby reinforced, allowing us to easily slip into a kind of postmodernist daze – a condition where we perversely define our own reality by how it is defined for us.  In our isolation we are (at least most of us) compromised and can easily be made insecure. And without countervailing social experiences, our isolation is ripe for the picking by those seeking to exploit us for economic or political gain.  Furthermore, over time we have all become more and more attenuated from access to source materials for the production of wealth, deprived of being masters over the fruits of our labor.  This attenuation has made most of us entirely dependent upon others for the means of obtaining life’s necessities.  This economic form of Fordism has also served to culturally deprive us of some aspect of our humanity, a deprivation that we compensate for with media distraction, consumer consumption, endless searches for self-meaning (as opposed to self-actualization).  This has also resulted in our work efforts becoming less collaborative and more independent of others with whom we work, but making us totally dependent on those with control over and ownership of our economic and political systems.  And with the destruction of the proprietary middle class – those shop owners who were once the staple of America’s Main Streets – decentralized personal interaction across class, religious and political boundaries has become unnecessary, allowing us the unfortunate luxury of being chauvinists – isolated and content to be with those with whom we share political and religious convictions, a situation that reinforces and sustains us in our isolated existences, protected from “others” who do not share our backgrounds, beliefs, and affiliations.

These trends not only support isolation but also what I refer  here to as “dis-integration,” namely, that which defines how, as a people, we are increasingly tending to live, work, pray, and socialize only with other people who share our same beliefs and political views, economic circumstances and purported social values. Economic circumstances and ethnic backgrounds have always been factors in segregated residential choices. But the irony is that just as we, as a society, are opening up neighborhoods to people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, new planned and gated communities are rising up to reinforce segregation in a new manner.  In an October 6, 2015 article in The Atlantic by Diana Butler Bass, she writes that “old neighborhoods…have been challenged by new kinds of neighborhoods where new patterns of tribe were being formed…where people clustered around different economic or cultural patterns…The principle of clustering around likeness has driven us into even smaller groups, increasingly isolated from one another suspicious of those who are different, surrounded by the invisible fencing of fear.”  In a 2014 study, Pew Research Center found similar results, with the difference being that for those identifying as “liberals,” living in ethnically diverse locations were important; for “conservatives,” faith based commonality was important.

The point I would like to make for this essay, is that these trends reinforce tribalism, which presumes same-group bias, and facilitates other- group exclusion, which, under the right circumstances, can lead to other-group hatred.

I also attribute this dis-integration to the centralization and consolidation of our economy, destruction of the middle class, radical change of the labor market and role of the workplace. As our economy has converted main streets into strip malls, and our middle class of decentralized proprietors into employees of big-box retailers; as our workforce has changed from an industrial to a service-oriented labor market, our local, productive economies have been destroyed, replaced by economically unfettered consumer societies. This transformation has contributed to obviating the need for interaction between and among persons of different backgrounds and persuasions. In the process, the destruction of local economies has also destroyed our local democracies. This is because political power follows economic power, and when the economy is decentralized, our democracy is as well. If the economy is centralized and consolidated, so too is political power centralized and consolidated. Without necessary exposure to those of different backgrounds and motivations, without a political connections vested in economic relations, people are easy prey for those seeking to exploit group sensitivities and insecurities. But even without outside agitation, such communities become social, political, racial, and economic echo chambers, creating (as with the isolated individual) a kind of collectively shared exclusive postmodernist reality, more dangerous and more powerful because it is reinforced by group dynamics.

In conclusion, isolation and dis-integration do not lead to racism in and of themselves, but these circumstances lay the foundation for its attractive appeal, potentially turning same group bias into other group hatred.


This is probably the most difficult area to link directly to racism (or any other group hatred).  This is so because there is much in religious systems that teaches tolerance and acceptance of others. I am not a critic of religion.  I understand that religion as a cultural expression has developed out of our basic human need to make sense of our lives.  We are conscious beings and as such we are burdened with the need to define ourselves, our purpose, and our reason for being.  This is not a burden carried by animals driven by instinct and lacking in self-awareness.  So I realize that we not only feel, but also have the capacity and need to understand, interpret and reconcile our lives to all that we feel.  Religion plays an important role for many, if not most, people in that it provides us with consolation and tolerance for all of the events that we are confronted with in life.  There is a case to be made that the absence of religion would lead most to desperation.  Religion has also had positive impact on relations with different ethnic groups, providing rules and assurances (expected behavior based upon religious beliefs) that led to cultural norms and legislative codification relied upon for inter-group relations, including trade relations.

But personally, where I have difficulty with much of what passes as religious expression regards people who profess faith and do not live it; people who preach “the word” but do not honor it in their daily lives.  My problem is with people who are religious hypocrites.  These hypocritical aspects of religion unfortunately speak to basic human needs for simple answers and paths to salvation and a better afterlife than the life we currently experience.  But often this need to belong operates to, and thrives upon, the exclusion of others.  As is the case in many, including Christian, faiths, there are those (“us”) who are saved, and those who are not (“them”).  To the extent that religious groupings practice true spirituality (“do unto others…,” living with the “absence of duality” and so forth), there is a net value added to the human experience.  But this is not always the case, and religion without spirituality is nothing more than base tribalism.  And this is value removed from the human experience, allowing for the cultivation and activation of our base, tribal instincts – even leading to other group hatred when core beliefs are challenged.

I do not push my beliefs on anyone, nor am I critical of those who believe in God.  To get this part out of the way, I do not believe in a personal God, as I do not believe in a personal soul.  To the extent there is a God, then god for me is indistinguishable from nature and the universe as a whole, and every expression of existence, including each one of us, is a part of this existence, part of God.  And where most would likely find this belief depressing, and leading each life towards a conclusion into nothing, I find this belief liberating and leading towards a conclusion into everything.  It also places me, while I am alive, in the context of humanity instead of a context of “me.”  As such, morality is more than a set of rules, it is a vital connection to each person and to life in general, leading to a form of ethical humanism embodied in life-long pursuits of knowledge, practice of virtue, and promotion of justice.  Whether this makes me an atheist, or a pantheist, or a Buddhist, I do not know and I do not think it matters.  It leads me to believe that any religion that thrives on inclusivity and tolerance is worthy of praise while any religion that thrives on fear and exclusion is worthy of condemnation.  And as all hypocritical religious expression promotes tribalism, these also promote, or at least facilitate, racism.

Religion that is inclusive and spiritual and demanding of expression of morality and virtue in all of our actions through every aspect of our lives will necessarily be a force diminishing racism and helping each member to overcome individual group bias.  But religion that is exclusive and demanding only of the adherence to rules for personal and “chosen” group salvation, not only fails to overcome racial bias, but often fuels and promotes it.  The Bible is filled with references that can be used not only to justify exclusion but even violence towards others who are not “us.”

Of course there is much in the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, which redeems it and merits its characterization as the “good book.”  But insular, isolated, exclusionary, insecure, tribal propensities have much to feed on in religious teachings as well.

Economic Insecurity:

It has become apparent in the 2015-2016 election cycle that Americans are angry and frustrated with “politics as usual.”  Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have taken a populist, anti-establishment message to primary voters and small donors, succeeding in turning the former “pay to play” election paradigm on its head – at least for now.  But of the two of these candidates with the most pronounced populist message, Donald Trump has exceeded the limited success of Bernie Sanders by also appealing to racist, xenophobic and white –heritage based – nationalism.

Senator Sanders makes the most compelling case for the populist support both on the Democratic and Republican side, with his message of income and wealth disparity and how our political system is rigged to benefit “the 1%.”  But although his crowds had been impressive through the winter of 2016, this heightened interest (mostly by voting-age youth) has not translated to increased delegate counts.  Trump, on the other hand, has been able to cause record-setting turnout in primary voting, which begs the question of whether his message is simply more powerful because of its appeal to, among other issues, racism.

There is no doubt that the last forty years have been tough on the American worker and low income people in general.  Manufacturing and private sector union employment has been decimated through free trade and globalization, promoted, facilitated and enforced through proactive, purposeful government policy. More and more workers have been met with long bouts of unemployment and the minimum wage, once the starting salary for teenagers gaining experience in the workforce, has now become a staple for far too many workers, even those with college degrees.  And even though the poverty rate has held steady of late at around 15%, nearly one-third of households between 2009 and 2011 have fallen below the poverty threshold at one time or another.  Combine this with the diminution and strict time limits of public assistance through welfare reform, there is little doubt that economic insecurity is deeply felt and pervasive.  The question is whether such factors that lead to widespread insecurity are the reason or even a substantial cause of the appeal of a Donald Trump, a political novice who denigrates women, labels Mexican immigrants rapists, and defends the size of his manhood on national television.

Recent studies have in fact demonstrated that there is a link between economic insecurity and racism – a major factor for turning same-group bias, into other group hatred.  Professor David Amodio and Amy Krosch of NYU conducted a number of experiments to demonstrate that, as stated in one Time Magazine article, “When the going gets tough, the tough get…prejudiced.” [June 9, 2014 article by Maya Rhodan]

In one experiment, participants were asked to agree or disagree whether, when blacks make economic gains, whites necessarily lose.  The results showed that the firmer the belief in such a “zero-sum” scenario, the more likely the participants were to identify the images shown as being “blacker” than they actually were.  Or as described in a Mother Jones article, “when people are made to think about economic scarcity—as they inevitably are during a stressful recession—their subconscious perceptions of race change as well. In particular, they are more likely to internally visualize African American faces as being darker in color and more “stereotypically black”—perceptions related, in prior research, to the expression of higher levels of discrimination. The study even found that when asked to divvy up money between two people, white study participants allocated less money to an individual who was perceived as being more stereotypically black.”  [June 12, 2014 article by Chris Mooney]

These studies substantiate what most sensitive, thinking and connected people feel intuitively.  Economic insecurity and racism are inter-connected.  Or, as stated in an Al Jazeera article by Lynn Stuart (March 19, 2015), “If you want less racism, we need less talk and more economic justice.”

Race-Blind Conventions (threats to):

Internalized expectations based upon dominant group conventions and experiences can lead to what has been a much talked-about topic of late, namely white privilege.  And when such group-limited conventions are threatened, the reaction can be emotional, seemingly irrational and punitive.  And, with respect to internalized, expected-as-normal, dominant group behavior towards people of similar backgrounds, the mere exposure or explicit identification as preferential treatment is enough to represent a threat that can lead to vociferous rejection and violent reaction.

Think about the extreme reactions of many white people to the claims of Malcolm X and others that Jesus was a person of color.  Why should it matter what the color, race, or ethnic background of a truly spiritual person is?  Of course, it boils down to perspective – how we see others with respect to ourselves.  If we see ourselves as superior partly because we (as white people for example) are made in the image of God, imagining God not to be white is an extremely traumatic occurrence because it goes to the core of who we believe we are, as individuals and as a group

“Black lives matter,” especially given recent events in Ferguson, Chicago, Staten Island, Cleveland and too many other cities to name, should not have evinced the kind of extreme visceral, violent and vocal reaction that it did.  Given that it did, this seems to suggest that such a straight-forward assertion, if accepted, connotes acceptance of culpability that has, heretofore, been acceptably targeted at the victims themselves.  It is beyond dispute that all lives matter, but all lives are not being threatened, particularly at the hands of official law enforcement officials.  Implicit in the assertion of “Black Lives Matter,” is the plea for recognition that certain people/groups are excluded from the dominant acceptance of “all,” and that this is a call for acceptance that black lives matter too.  And if you cannot accept that, then it is clear that acceptance will only be possible when there is no choice other than to accept it as such.

Expecting a warning instead of a ticket, viewing reservation of union jobs for children of union workers (as a time honored legacy), expecting justice from the justice system, labeling white students acting out as reveling youth letting off steam while black students acting out are rioting, expecting not to be followed while shopping, expecting not to be confronted with violence when engaging law enforcement – all of these are examples of majority, dominant group expectations that in the process of protecting them, either hurts others or makes us blind to the harm done to others.

A recent master at making a parody of white privilege is Dave Chappelle.  His show often depicted two friends – one white and one black – as having marked differences in expectations when engaging law enforcement.  In one such skit, Dave Chappelle and “Chip,” his white friend, were obviously stoned but also lost and in need of directions.  A cop car pulls up on the next corner.  Dave is ready to run, but Chip is like, “where are you going?  I am going to ask for directions,” fully expecting not to get beat up and pulled into the station as a result.  In another skit, Chip is driving while stoned, speeding and blasting the car radio as he drives.  When stopped by a patrol car Chip rolls down his window and explains to the officer that he didn’t know he couldn’t do that (whatever he was stopped for).  The trooper says ok and admonishes him not to do it again.  In yet another skit, Chappelle portrays a white man and learns the secret of white success – all white people give everything to one another for free!

These spoofs are absurd and exaggerated to the extreme, but the point is well made.  In this country, as elsewhere, even though explicit forms of racism are outlawed, implicit forms are internalized and to a great degree institutionalized.  Chris Rock once related a story told to him by his father about the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight.   He explained how when Cooney was knocked out in the 11th round, the scorers had him ahead on points, making the only means available for Homes to win being by knock out.  Chris Rock has some of his facts wrong.  The knockout was in the 13th round.  At the time Larry Holmes was actually ahead on points.  However, he was only ahead on points due to a multitude of low blows, without which Cooney would have exceeded Holmes’ point total.  Given this, his point still has validity, which is backed up by a New York Times report by Michael Katz (6/13/82), where he agreed that the judges overlooked Holmes’ “self-controlled and intelligent performance,” despite Holmes having “thoroughly beaten a courageous but outclassed Gerry Cooney for 12 rounds.”

So the question becomes, if indeed the Times reporting and some viewer opinions differ from the actual scorers assessment, is the stack decked against black (and other minority) participants within a system where all or most of the institutions that serve as intermediaries between the establishment (those in power) and the rest of us are biased in favor of the dominant societal group – in this case, whites?  Chris Rock’s father purportedly related this story to him as a “life lesson,” namely that as a black man you cannot simply be better, or simply be right.  In order to prevail it is necessary to knock out your opponent if he is representative of that segment of the population in charge.

If this is true (and to assist in answering this, wonder: if Jackie Robinson was simply better than the average professional baseball player at the time of his entry into mainstream professional baseball, would he have broken the color barrier in that sport) then this would seem to operate in the realm of same group preference (even in assessing performance) that operates in society at large.  And if this bias is pervasive, then we could likely have a situation defined by C. Wright Mills as the “mobilization of bias.”  This occurs even though there is no explicit policy of discrimination.  By favoring one group over another on a consistent basis, the effect is the same as if there was outright, government and societally sanctioned bigotry (framed in popular culture and jurisprudence as “de facto discrimination” when the 1964 Civil Rights Act by its legislative requirement alone did not succeed in ending conventional discriminatory practices).  This helps make the case that institutionalized same-group preference can operate as institutionalized other-group bias, which if pervasive enough will operate as de facto racism.

And while those on one side will see this injustice as it plays out on a daily basis in their lives, swallowing the anger that remains to fester within until some event forces its release, those on the other side react with confusion, defensiveness, anger and even hurt feelings.   This is likely because conditions that frame the expectations of those who benefit from them are not readily available to be recast without trauma.  Claims of “white privilege” are seen as threats because if I did not “deserve everything I have worked so hard for,” then I am in danger of marginalization or further marginalization, which is terrifying, particularly if my paradigm is that only those who deserve to prevail (like me), actually do prevail.  So when groups of angry blacks march and shout “black lives matter,” the prevailing white response is “all lives matter.”  When blacks burn and loot their own neighborhood, lashing out in frustration through the only point of access for their individual and collective frustration, the prevailing white response is disbelief that people would basically hurt themselves by destroying their own neighborhood businesses, as though doing so is an act of stupidity instead of acts of exasperation.  When black activists and others without a voice disrupt rallies to make a political point, a frequent critique is that by demanding access for free speech for themselves, they are disrupting the free speech of others.  These privileged rationales act as protective barriers to understanding and empathy.  They will only be overcome when we are able to set aside our own insecurities, recognize the privileges that are not broadly shared among all Americans, and truly accept the need for change through dialogue and shared experiences.  For those historically and systematically hurt by these privileges there is the need to open up, manage the anger within, and accept the possibility for change that will only come from open and frank communication.  The trick is to figure out what the most appropriate forum or forums would be for such a conversation to take place.

In conclusion, if indeed we are all genetically wired for same group preference, there are ample opportunities for this bias to be manipulated or geared towards other-group hatred when conditions are ripe for such transition.  In the last essay of this three part series, we will look into how to this bias can not only be overcome but converted to a societal benefit through appreciation for diversity in building community.

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