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Source: The Telegraph.
Source: The Telegraph.

Racism today is widely categorised as a moral crime, held to arise from individual moral aberration. The problem with this moralistic interpretation is that not only is it not true, but that everybody on Earth, without any exception, is racist to some or other degree. This includes you and me. We shall see why, shortly. If anyone denies that they are to any degree racist, they have only to do the online Harvard Implicit Bias Detection Test to prove to themselves otherwise.

Racism is not only the biggest problem in South Africa; it is also the obstacle preventing the solution to many other problems. Problems such as unemployment, education, corruption, and economic decline can only be resolved if the races cooperate willingly, and soon, and there appears to be little chance of this happening, as things stand today, with the races moving steadily apart. Most importantly, we have no chance of ever overcoming the problem of racism unless we come first to understand what racism actually is, as opposed to the sin that moralising dogma has us believe it to be.

To this end, three fundamental things about racism need to be understood.

First, what is referred to as ‘racism’ involves a great deal more than mere physical appearance.

‘Racism’ is a prejudice against, or aversion to, not simply people’s racial appearance, but to all those things about them that are significantly different to what we are personally accustomed to and like. This includes their appearance, language, culture, religion, customs, education, and behaviour. ‘Racism’ is basically the dislike of difference. We humans do not like, and are naturally suspicious of, whatever is significantly ‘different’ to us and ours. Not because we are stupid or irrational, but because over the hundreds of thousands of years that our ancestors lived an extremely hazardous existence in small, isolated communities, they adapted to the dangerous and frequently hostile circumstances by developing an aversion to whatever was unfamiliar and unknown to them. What was not familiar – person, animal, or circumstance, was always potentially lethal. Our species has survived, partly because we carry this inherent aversion deeply within ourselves, and will always do so. And this is why we are all ‘racist’, to some degree or another. ‘Cultural prejudice’ is a more accurate term for this defensive predisposition than ‘racism’.

The second, and by far the most important thing to understand, is that ‘racism’ isn’t simply an isolated biological adaptation carried into the present from the past. ‘Racism’ or, more accurately, negative cultural prejudice, is, in fact, nothing other than the reverse of positive cultural prejudice, or personal and social self-identification.

As social animals, every human being of necessity identifies closely with the family, clan, tribe, and nation into which they are born, and of which they naturally feel proud. In this deeply emotional process, one’s own social group is perceived to be possessed of particular virtues, unique to it, that are seen as not being shared by the rest of humankind. This form of socialisation is positive and fundamental to human survival. It has a logical corollary, however, which has recently become an unfortunate but inevitable negative factor in the circumstances particular to the modern world.

If the social group with which you have naturally identified yourself is perceived to possess virtues not possessed by other groups, then, by definition, the other groups are held to be inferior. Obviously, if every social group were considered to be just as virtuous as one’s own, the socially binding effect of group loyalty would be non-existent, because for its positive effect group loyalty necessarily depends upon perceiving other groups negatively, as less virtuous and so inferior to one’s own. Paradoxically, if loyalty to one’s own social group is to be biologically effective, ‘racism’ or cultural prejudice against all strangers also has to exist in order for it to be so.

So, ‘racism’ and social self-identification turn out to be two necessarily opposing aspects of the same adaptive biological process of socialisation; directed inwards and positively towards one’s own social group in the first instance, and outwards and negatively against strangers in the second. Far from being a moral crime, ‘racism’ is simply the absolutely natural human biological response to any significant social difference in other people. Clearly, any attempt at resolving the problem that ‘racism’ now gives rise to in the modern world, must take this basic fact into account if it is to succeed.

Thirdly, anti-racism is a very recent phenomenon. For the entire course of human history, ‘racism’ has been the social norm in every society on Earth, right up to the middle of the 20th century. Earlier, everybody was expected to be ‘racist’. There was a very good reason for this.

Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, human populations tended to remain in one place and to be homogeneous, and if they did move, it was generally as a result of disaster or conquest. As mentioned previously, outsiders to a community were always a potential threat, and suspicion and aversion to what was different about them served a protective and so socially beneficial function. By the 19th and mid-20th century, however, globalisation and the development of mass transportation radically changed social circumstances, and migration, and racial mixing took place on a large scale. This led to increasing internal political conflict in Western societies. Suddenly, in historical terms and under the pressure of changing circumstances, cultural prejudice was transformed from being a positive social factor in respect of isolated communities, into a negative factor in respect of those Western communities subject to large-scale immigration. The Western social attitude to what was now popularly referred to as ‘racism’ started to change accordingly, from approximately the 1950s.

While the official Western social attitude towards ‘racism’ was reversed, it was of course not possible to legislate away in human beings what was an inherent biological adaptation. This could never be done, anyway, without simultaneously eliminating the positive side of the adaptation – group loyalty and social cohesion.

The moralisation of the problem of ‘racism,’ starting from the 20th century, has effectively prevented a rational response to it. By categorising it as a moral evil, rather than understanding that racism arises from an early biological adaptation, part of which (and only part of which) is no longer appropriate in modern circumstances, the essential understanding that everybody on Earth is ‘racist’ to at least some or other degree failed to be considered, because nobody was going to admit to being evil.

Before considering the particular issue of racism in South Africa, which is the principal object of this essay, we summarise; to have any chance whatsoever of resolving the problem of ‘racism’, the following factors need to be taken into account:

  1. ‘Racism’ is not a moral crime. It is a biological adaptation common to all humans, part of which is no longer socially appropriate. (A trait common to every human cannot possibly be a moral crime.)
  2. ‘Racism’ is simply the inverse of individual social self-identification.
  3. ‘Racism’ is more accurately termed ‘social or cultural prejudice’.
  4. ‘Anti-racism’ or ‘non-racism’ is a very recent and historically anomalous social phenomenon.

As the root of ‘racism’ in the modern world is the inherent human fear that people culturally different to ourselves are a threat to our welfare, any attempted solution to the problem must, without fail, aim to neutralise this.

    • The difference of course, is that Professor Crowe argues from a hard genetic/biological point of view, while David argues from a socialism/behavioral science point of view, but not that it makes much of a difference in any event.

      Socially or behaviorally, the bias still exists, but what we need to realize as South Africans is that we are all still relatively new to this whole “integration malarkey” and that our experiences with each other will soon start to override and reprogramme our internal bias against the other and in favour of our own kind and this would indeed happen a lot faster if the political elements of our society wasn’t on a perpetual quest to profit from racialism in some form or another.

      • Gillian Benade

        Incisive comment

  • Harald Sitta

    Nothing against prejudices as long 1) you know it is a prejudice and 2) you are ready to rethink it. A very good article.