"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Racism Isn’t ‘Natural’

America is a strange country.  On the one hand we are slavish to science, for it appears to be the way to progress and a better society.  Technological innovations almost daily expand our access to knowledge and information, link us in ever-widening social webs, make our lives easier and more comfortable, solve the riddles of disease and infirmity, and probe the very nature of consciousness and being.

On the other hand we are very gullible, equally credulous about the viral conspiracies on the Web, slavish to primitive religious belief systems, and willing to try just about any cockamamie idea to improve our social interactions, our psychological and spiritual well-being, our educational system, and the strength of our social fabric.  Feel-good programs on positive thinking, self-esteem, stress reduction, and spiritual awakening are advertised everywhere.  We are relentless in our pursuit of personal well-being and social utopia.

We as Americans are perhaps the country least concerned with the past.  History is a boring chronicle of kings and empires, wars, and complex genealogies.  Better to let it like and look to the future.  For most of us, every day is, in the words of Pol Pot, “Year Zero”.

A particularly American phenomenon is the search for a scientific basis for personal and social problems.  If we can find the scientific reasons for why we behave the way we do, then it will be easy to reform, adjust, modify, or downright change our behavior. Dumb kids are ‘learning disabled’, and with the right amount of attention, care, and technology, we can make them smart.  Trouble reading and following dense paragraphs of Kant?  You’re not stupid, just dyslexic, and a course of cognitive therapy can get you straight in a matter of months.  Is your child a wild savage in school, climbing on desks and punching girls when he should be learning?  His antisocial behavior is not your problem, nor due to your lax parenting, indifference, or attention only to your own work and play.  The little ankle-biter cannot possibly be a product of your genes or home environment, and there has to be a chemical imbalance throwing off his synapses.  He is not a kid that should be locked in the closet.  He has Attention Deficit Disorder which can be fixed by a course of Ritalin.

Because of millennia of ‘racism’, Americans believe that there must be a scientific basis for it; and if there is, there can be a Ritalin or Xanax or Zoloft to cure it.  There can be no way that we could possibly behave in such an ignorant and intolerant way unless there were some inner, physiological reason for it. We are at the Year Zero, remember, and regardless of history, there must be a scientific way to modify our behavior.

Lo and behold! There is a scientific basis for racism as Robert Wright informs us in an article in the Atlantic (10.17.12)

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they've performed amygdala studies--which had previously been done on adults--on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn't kick in until around age 14.

We are apparently hardwired to pay attention to race in our early teenage years, but our perception of racial differences decreases the more our peer group is diverse; and the more diverse the group, the less the amygdala fires.  So far so good, but the researchers draw this contradictory conclusion:

At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ''these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.''

According to the researchers, there is a site in the brain – the amygdala – which has been programmed to pay attention to race.  Race is somehow important to the survival of the species, and the amygdala fires away when it sees a black person (if the observer is white).  T

The researchers, however, conveniently forget to state the obvious but key variable. The amygdala is not clicking on race per se but difference.  Unknown, outside challenges to our personal or social perimeter have always been too important to leave to quiet reflection and deliberation (“Hmmm…I wonder who that stranger that is lurking in the bushes?  Probably nothing…”), and some primal sub-cognitive reflex kicks in.

They also forget to comment on the equally obvious fact that once the strangers lurking in the bush have come in out of the briars to join the crowd, the amygdala feels no need to light the ‘Watch out! Danger!’ warning.

Racism is of course more likely to occur in gated white communities; and a resident when peering out the window and seeing a black face will of course feel the old, primal race-discriminating reflexes surfacing.

Once black people become fully integrated into white society – i.e. they exhibit no social, economic, intellectual differences – color (difference) disappears as a marker. 

This article and the book on which it is based are good examples of wishful thinking based on the willful manipulation of scientific data.  Of course we are not racist at heart, we now can say.  Just a simple matter of synapses which we can train to fire however we want and remove this centuries old stigma.

Yes and no.  We will always respond to strangers (the Outlier, the Ugly Duckling, the Other) in the same guarded, self-protective and ‘racist’ way; but society always seems to have a way of assimilating the strangers and the Other.  That is what is natural.

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