The Roots of Racism
Racism is generally defined as hostility to racial groups other than one's own. Bigotry is a somewhat broader term, taking in anyone different from oneself and including religious, ethnic and deviant groups. Whatever the term we use, it is generally understood that the labeling of such groups as inferior serves the purpose of magnifying the self-esteem of the racist or bigot. This need clearly derives from the racist's or bigot's own feelings of inferiority, though many individuals perceived as strong also reveal themselves to be racists or bigots and therefore, at bottom, are not so strong after all, even if they turn out to be Hitlers.
Racism, however, has an evolutionary root. Recognition of what is different from ourselves and potentially dangerous is essential to our survival, so until we determine otherwise we treat the "other" with suspicion and stay away from him or remain on guard. This can clearly be seen in the savanna, where certain animals graze together and certain animals cause panic in the grazing herds. Like animals, human beings are wary of what is unknown and therefore suspicious of strangers, though they ostensibly have a greater capacity than animals to determines who is dangerous and who is harmless, at least intellectually. In practice, however, it is the animal who intuitively or instinctively sorts out the landscape more quickly and then proceeds to act in strict accordance with his understanding of the dangers involved. That is because the animal evaluates potential threats from other species only in terms of physical safety.
The great difference, the difference that causes human beings, unlike animals, to be hostile (or ultimately contemptuous) with regard to people who are different from themselves even after it is ascertained that these others pose no physical threat, is to be found precisely in the human intellect or more complex mind, for the more complex a mind is, the broader the sense of self and the more vulnerable it is to what are perceived as threats to this self or ego and the greater the need to defend it. Human beings are vulnerable psychically as well as physically and therefore respond to a far greater variety of perceived threats and find a far greater variety of remedies than animals do. In the savanna, once it is ascertained that an animal does not pose a physical threat, that is the end of the matter and the two species live peacefully side by side. Not so with humans, who also require and demand validation from others, in direct proportion to the strength or weakness of their characters.
This need to maintain a good opinion of oneself finds a very convenient prop in what is different from oneself, for once a group has been pinpointed and earmarked as such, whether dangerous or not, this same otherness very quickly comes to be used as something against which the weak may measure and bolster themselves, affirming what they are and denigrating what they are not. As Sartre wrote in his well-known study of the antisemite: "There is a passionate pride among the mediocre, and antisemitism is an attempt to give value to mediocrity as such, to create an elite of the ordinary…. To this end the antisemite finds the existence of the Jew absolutely necessary. Otherwise, to whom would he be superior?" And James Baldwin as well: "In a way, the Negro tells us where the bottom is: because he is there, and where he is, beneath us, we know where the limits are and how far we must not fall. We must not fall beneath him. We must never allow ourselves to fall that low …" ("In Search of a Majority").
The ingenuity of human beings in putting Nature to its own uses is boundless. You need a highly developed brain for that, and thank God we have one.
Fred Russell © 2018