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Opinion Column
For the week of September 6 through 12, 2000

Pulling the rug out from under racism doesn’t eliminate it

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

Fear of the unknown is something everyone experiences at one time or another, whether it be a new job, town or school. But when we experience it in relation to people of other skin colors and cultures we tend to express our own insecurities of character. These insecurities manifest themselves in our disparaging others.

It was recently reported in The New York Times that after their release of the first draft of the human genome sequence, scientists at the National Institute of Health and Celera Genomics, a Rockville, Md., company, determined that there is no significant genetic differences among races. The scientists’ conclusion was that there is, from a biological standpoint, only one race.

While we can easily distinguish superficial physical differences between Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Hispanics from visual information, there are no genetic distinctions in the more complex traits such as intelligence, social skills, and artistic talent.

The Times article pointed out that superficial characteristics like skin color and eye color, features we use to distinguish races, are generally controlled by very few genes. Traits such as intelligence, social skills and artistic talent are thought to be the result of the interaction of thousands of genes.

Over the course of the approximately 100,000 years the human species has been around, simple physical traits such as skin and eye color have evolved as a result of environmental pressure. For example, people living in equatorial regions developed darker skin and eye color as a means of protecting against the sun.

Contrarily, there simply hasn’t been enough time for the complex of interacting genes that determine intelligence, social skills, and artistic talent to evolve en mass and thereby show distinctions between "races."

This fact, in effect, pulls the rug out from under 226 years of racism in the U.S. and similar such episodes around the world. It doesn’t mean that racism suddenly vanishes into the ether. Despite the fact that differences in race have no biological underpinnings, racism has persisted throughout the history of this country.

What then is the source of prejudice? Several factors may be at play: fear of the unknown, intellectual laziness and a phenomenon called "stereotype threat."

Fear of the unknown is something everyone experiences at one time or another, whether it be a new job, town or school. But when we experience it in relation to people of other skin colors and cultures we tend to express our own insecurities of character. These insecurities manifest themselves in our disparaging others.

In many people’s world of values, pushing someone else down is the same as raising oneself up. It seems unlikely that kindness and respect are part of a zero-sum game, nonetheless, this is a fairly prevalent attitude.

People in even remotely competitive situations often defend their actions and attitudes, racist or not, in the context of Darwin’s "survival of the fittest." It is true for animals that anything goes; they compete to the death for resources—food, mates, territory. But they also lack several human qualities that enter into the survival equation, namely compassion, conscience and altruism.

Humans are different from all other animals. Survival means survival of the species. And, ultimately, this will likely depend on the strengths of all ethnic groups and cultures. It is why a "reality" show of such mass appeal, "Survivor," is so offensive. It perpetuates a misunderstanding of human nature. Yes, the mean guy survived—he won. But then what? If we moved forward in time would "Richard" survive living alone on that island? Would he propagate his genes, live an enriched life? I don’t think so.

While many of us turn a skeptical eye towards groups that are different from ours, whether it is because we feel threatened or not, it is precisely the wrong response. Any culture or ethnic group that has survived for this long, in all likelihood, has learned a few things about life. And given the vagaries and complexity of modern life, we can use all the help we can get.

What I mean by intellectual laziness has to do with making sweeping generalizations about groups of people, which is also at the core of racism. It is always easier to extrapolate from one to the whole group.

How many people can one truly know in life? Maybe a few. Can we really say something intelligent or meaningful about an entire ethnic group based on such limited experience? To judge people individual by individual requires character and patience and imagination. Racism is simply a cop-out.

A third aspect of racism to consider is that it can and has become a self -fulfilling prophesy. Once a hierarchy is established by the first in power in any given situation, it is very difficult to erode it.

In the last few years, two scientists at Stanford University, Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, have discovered an interesting phenomenon called "stereotype threat." In experiments, the researchers have given black and white undergraduate students standardized tests. In one case they told the students the test was a measure of their intellectual ability. In the other, they described the test as an abstract research tool.

In the former test, whites scored much better than blacks. In the latter, the scores were identical. In other words, when the black students knew that their performance would be used in conjunction with a stereotype about their group’s intelligence, they did much worse. The fear of lending fuel to a stereotype—that blacks are not as smart as whites—diminished their performance.

This is to say that once a stereotype is established, whether based in reality or not, it can have very real effects. It is a case of perception driving reality rather than the other way around. It also underscores something about evaluating people that we learned long ago about measuring physical quantities—that the way in which we measure can alter the result.

How will we ever eliminate racism? Scientific knowledge is a start. Legal protections help. Public policies have some effect. But the bulk of the problem will only be solved person by person. Not until each person questions those undercurrents of racism we have all learned along the way, will we get anywhere.

Ironically, part of the problem is the stigma attached to racism. Even acknowledging racist thoughts is tantamount to proclaiming one’s evil nature. I don’t think that should be the case.

Whatever racism we have in us we obviously learned. I suspect that everyone, whether Caucasian, African, Asian or Hispanic, has thought racist thoughts at one time or another. Until we acknowledge those thoughts and question ourselves as to where they came from and what they are based on, we are perpetuating the problem.

It is a battle that will be won conscience by conscience. You can’t tell someone not to be racist. Each of us has to examine our own attitudes and arrive at our own understanding of others before the whole moves forward.


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