I had posed the question to my friends: Does racism exist because of hate, or because of a desire for power?
Perhaps not unexpectedly, I received a mixed number of responses.
I feel like I come from a unique perspective on this. I am the youngest of four biological children, but my parents have adopted 11, and none of them look like me. Still, I have always struggled to come at this issue from both a personal and intellectual perspective.
The other day, my discussion with my friends provoked a few thoughts.
As an integral part of our history, the subject of racial injustice and division is nothing new to the United States. It’s something we have grappled with since the founding of this country and the days of slavery. The issue has plagued us from the days of our earliest immigrants, up through the civil rights era.
In light of the latest BLM protests, it’s safe to say that it remains an important topic.
Now, perhaps more than ever, people around the United States and the world are once again grappling with how we can understand and eradicate racism from our culture, society, and system.
The question: Where did all of this begin? Were people born racist? Is racism natural, and will it always be with us? And, finally—perhaps most importantly—where exactly does racism come from?
Is hate a natural human condition?
It would be presumptuous to claim any finality to any answers attempting to answer this question, even if based on the most meticulous research.
Racism and division among the invented categories of the human species has been with us for thousands of years. It may not be going away any time soon, but how did it get that way?
Some have argued that our racism stems solely from our tribalism—a concept ingrained in us by nature, perhaps for survival. In ancient times, meeting up with someone a different tribe may have been a death sentence. Based on this, we may perhaps naturally perceive those who appear different than us as a threat and must overcome this animal-like instinct. However, that theory seems to fall flat when you remove the influences of culture, government, and society.
The human being, in his or her most natural state, is a social creature and not one that discriminates by race. To observe this, one only needs to look at a set of small children, still untainted by society’s influences, who will readily interact with any other member of the human species.
Concepts dividing us along trivial lines like race don’t come until much later, why?
Understanding individual and systemic racism
Before we dive too deeply into racism and race, we must understand the difference between the different forms of racism.
Systemic racism and individual racism are often two concepts that get confused, which may be why some people are simply too sensitive to discuss the issue.
Many assume, when speaking of systemic racism, that it simply means individual racism on a more massive scale. Thus, many feel they are being accused of being racist. However, the matter is much more complex.
Systemic racism is a system that acts or operates in such a way that it excludes or oppresses the racial minority. Such oppression can come in various ways, shapes, and forms. No malicious intent is necessarily required, and indeed systemic racism can exist without the intent behind individual racism.
One extreme example of this can be seen in the obvious systemically racist era of Jim Crow.
During the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, many Black people struggled to get to work while protesting against the discriminatory public transit system. Many white people attempted to assist in this endeavor by giving them rides. Authorities responded by fining white drivers.
Here, we see a racially prejudiced system punishing those individuals who don’t fall in line with its precepts. It’s a more obvious example, but one of many of how the system attempts—and sometimes succeeds—in creating individual racism.
Many assume that systemic racism arises from individual racism, which has embedded itself into every aspect of our society. I argue that the opposite is true.
I believe it was the system that made some people racist, not the other way around. It’s not the first time an organized system has meticulously worked against our nature and succeeded.
Human beings are not as violent and hateful creatures as some would have us believe. The truth is, we’re actually quite empathetic.
War and the human condition
A glance at the news—or even a quick study of history—would seem to paint a very grim picture of the human species as a whole.
We are selfish, greedy, hateful, and, most of all, violent. One could argue that the measure of person’s hate can be more closely revealed by that person’s willingness to kill. In fact, the Bible tells us that hating each other is just as bad as the act of murder, because all sin starts in the heart.
Yet, as violent as humanity seems to be, some research would paint a very different picture. In fact, human beings do not kill easily, nor do they kill naturally.
According to one prominent study, only about 15 to 20 percent of soldiers actually fired their weapons during World War II. Of those who actually discharged their firearms, even fewer actually shot to kill. This concerned the military greatly, causing them to update and upgrade their advanced combat training and conditioning techniques. Eventually, they were able to get those numbers up to 55 percent during the Korean War and up 90 to 95 percent during Vietnam.
Man is not a natural killer; somebody made him that way. I believe the same is true of the racist.
An example from the family
I once read an autobiographical account of a man by the name of Wayne Normis. The book, The Last Street Fighter, detailed his life growing up in inner-city Los Angeles, and his encounters with crime, violence, and gang activity.
As a young child, he told the story of how he was once out riding bikes with a few friends. While they were riding, one of the three provoked a group of Black kids into a fight. Wayne and his friend fled the scene.
When Wayne and his friend arrived back at the house, they frantically explained what happened to the boy’s mother, ardently explaining the other boy had chosen to fight while they choose to do the right thing by walking away. The mother responded by beating and berating Wayne’s friend right in front of him, reprimanding the boy for “walking away from a fight with [racial expletive].”
While children are not born racist, they often become that way because it’s passed down to them their parents, who passed it down to them. But that cycle began somewhere. It wasn’t always that way.
An example from the prison system
A few years ago, the Pinal County Jail ran a violent, drug-ridden, and severely segregated prison. Not because of prison officials, but because of the inmates themselves. An in-depth investigation of the jail was conducted by partnering with A&E through the documentary series, “60 Days In.” I did some research on the show, and have discovered it’s painfully real.
After the investigation, authorities discovered just how bad the prison’s racial issues and gang violence were. After investigating further, they found that the problems were primarily stemming from individuals who ran the jail pods, and older inmates who enforced the system. Anyone who bucked the system was “rolled out” of the jail pod through threat of violence, and sent to another jail area. If inmates continued in their refusal to comply, they would eventually become “green-lighted” by their race, making them a target for violence and virtual outcast in the jail. Even worse, they discovered that younger inmates were being used as pawns, tools, and soldiers in their gang activities and race wars.
Prison officials were able to somewhat effectively address this issue by separating younger inmates from older inmates before being tainted.
Yet again, we see an example of a few powerful people forcing their racist and hateful ways on the weak and vulnerable. Further, we see that left alone, racial prejudice seems to diminish among the younger generation.
The only way these gaps fail to close is through some kind of outside, systemic interference.
Slavery, Exploitation, War
When discussing the issue of systemic racism, we have to talk about the motives.
This issue does not stem from mindless hate, as many have falsely believed. It does not stem from haughty “white privilege” although one could argue that has been the result. It stems from a few intelligent but manipulative and dangerous individuals who learned how to control and manipulate people, and how it could benefit them personally, along with their peers.
First, consider the matter of war. We’ve already discussed how human beings are not readily willing to kill each other unless some outside force manipulates them to do. Considering race could once be equated with nationality, it would make sense that governments waging war would need their people to be a little bit racist. The “us versus them” mentality is very much a necessity of war.
While this form of tribalism does not necessitate the aspect of race, it is a convenient motive. It’s also an easy target as our most obvious feature. But when we do this, it also divides the populace among each other rather than allowing us to discuss the true motives of war.
And beyond the labors of war, we should consider the labors of industry. There has never been a great empire that did not thrive on free or cheap labor, and America is no exception. It started with slavery, but let’s face it, it wasn’t a sustainable system.
First, it never would have succeeded without fugitive slave laws and other federal mechanisms to keep it in place. Secondly, America was never united on the issue. Even since our founding and the drafting of our constitution, it’s been a source of contention along with questions of equality between citizens and slaves.
Slavery as a system was so morally objectionable that it led to a civil war in America. It’s also worth mentioning that republicans would not exist were it not for their decision to break off from the Whigs for that very reason.
Yet slavery is not the only time the American system has taken advantage of a racial or national minority. The system exploited the Irish, only to take them into the circle rather than acquiesce to the labor of African Americans later on. The system exploited Latin Americans in the Bracero and other guest worker programs. The system exploited the Chinese until the economy no longer needed their labor, after which point, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Sadly, for many years, the economy and opportunistic industries have thrived on free or cheap labor through the system of exploitation. It’s an objectionable system to be sure, and one most people probably wouldn’t have accepted if not for systemic racism.
Whether through the labors of war or the labors of industry, already we can see where a few rich and powerful had a direct motive to influence society to more racist tendencies.
Racism is Systemic at The Root
The conclusion here is that on the issue of racism, it often comes down to the “chicken or the egg.” Which came first?
Were people racist, and thus they built a racist system? Or did those who originally built the system see the advantages of encouraging racial division among the masses?
Let’s just say, most people who are racist, whether they know it or not, are not racist by choice.