Racism May Not Be the Worst Thing About Racism

I moved to America because of racism. Not the racism you find in America, but the racism I faced in back home, in Germany.

It may seem odd, but Germans were still wildly racist in 1998. Instead of targeting the (relatively) few Jews, they had chosen Southern European immigrants, especially those from Turkey, plus the asylum seekers to whom the constitution granted general welcome (but not the people that followed that constitution). An Italian looks Southern European enough. I was a target.

America has its very own problem with racism, and it’s pretty big. But it didn’t affect people that looked like Southern Europeans (at least, not anymore). I flew under the radar and could count on people’s lack of specific bias and fairness, and it worked out for me.

One thing that stayed with me, though, was a certain curiosity about racism. It seemed that racism didn’t follow much logic: not the opinions proffered, but also not the way it affected people or its distribution among them.

The first thing I noticed was that, logically, racism makes no sense. While Hitler and his ilk didn’t know that, current genetic mapping tells us we are almost all, genetically, black. That means that the vast majority of genetic diversity in human species is contained in Sub-Saharan Africa, while all the gene types present in the rest of the world are also present in Africa. So, to think that there would be somehow a race specially gifted among us that isn’t black is plain stupid.

If racism fails on a genetic basis, it may have roots in cultures. For instance, it is true that a lot of the Southern European immigrants migrating to Germany were from the poorest, least educated classes in the poorest regions of their respective countries. That may have made them poorer drivers, for instance, because they were not used to cars and traffic. Or they may have had a hard time reading text in Latin characters. Or they may have had a hard time learning German (not the easiest of languages to learn, trust me).

The solution to cultural issues is the melting pot, of the kind that existed in America in the Great Generation, after World War II. Everybody brings their own habits to the table, and the best one wins. Which is how we ended up with pizza and burgers everywhere, but no British food. I can be proud to be Italian in America, and still not think that being Polish is inferior.

On the other hand, the melting pot failed to dissolve the racism faced by non-Caucasians, particularly African-Americans. I vividly recall the first crime show I saw in which one perpetrator left a phone message, and the voice was described as a “black male.” I wondered to myself why there would be such a thing as a black voice, while I did understand there was such a thing as a male voice.

It turns out that there is a dialect of American English spoken mostly by African-Americans. Its existence and consistency indicates there is a problem of separation between the groups, since dialects are exchanged with the people around you.

Now, the moment you have segregation (like here), cultural patterns can diverge. Thus it came to be that the natives of Pflugfelden (the village my German family comes from) hated the guts of the natives of Möglingen on the other side of the freeway. Oh, the gulf, the chasm between the two cultures! It was even said that the natives of Pflugfelden would rather marry a Prussian (here they’d spit to the ground on the side, for effect) than a Möglinger!

The racist points out the divergent cultural patterns, declares the ones of the culture (s)he doesn’t belong to inferior, and declares the group (the race) inferior. That is of course silly: the problem is not the group, but the cultural pattern. The way to disrupt cultural patterns is to cross them with better ones: interact and meld.

Which brings me to the conclusion of the first part of this article: racism is stupid.

Now that I shared that incredible revelation with you, I feel I should also share the rest of my findings. They are not as obvious, so hang on.

First, I noticed that racism is not tied to lack of intelligence, which I found totally counterintuitive. After all, racism is stupid, so it would seem rational to think that intelligent people would be able to see through racism. But a lot of racist people don’t.

My favorite example is from my childhood: my mother used to be a medicine student in Freiburg im Breisgau, in Germany. The world (in)famous philosopher Heidegger lectured there, so she attended a few of his classes. She said it was the strangest thing; the man would talk for a long time about philosophy in  a perfectly reasonable way, then some inner switch flipped inside him, and he’d go on an anti-Semitic rant that was both unexplained and embarrassing for the audience. Then that switch flipped again, and the man talked about Sein und Zeit. A mystery.

Second, it is astonishing how the realization that racism is unacceptable didn’t get rid of racism. America fought a war about slavery and racism 140 years ago. The slavists lost, and the Constitution was amended to reflect that. But racism lived on, and there was a second bout of legislation in the 60s. That still wasn’t enough! Racism is mysteriously alive and well, and not even the election of a black man could end that!

Third, and tied to second, it baffles the mind how many openly racist people do not believe they are racists. Some of it is due to ambiguity (and frankly, sometimes I have a hard time, too, reading racism into some comments), but most of it is simply that the person is deaf to their own words. Something atrociously bigoted will spill out with a congenial smile, and the person that uttered the reprehensible words will look surprised when there is any form of backlash.

Fourth, and unrelated to anything, racism is economically self-defeating. Like any stupid behavior, all that racism does is prevent you from something. If you are renting an apartment, racism will let you pass up a family that would have been perfect for your place, but simply has the wrong skin color. If you are looking to fill a position, you may take up the second-best candidate for the same reason.

If you do something stupid, it costs you. If you do something stupid repeatedly, it costs you repeatedly. Ergo, a racist should be at a disadvantage.

Why is that not so? Why is it that, instead, the full force of the disadvantage goes to the targets of racism? Why is it that I would have such a hard time finding an apartment to rent or a job, despite references and credentials, but none of the impact rested on those that made the stupid choice?

Fifth, and this is the most important conclusion I made, racism is not about those that believe in racist ideas. For the economics to work, a lot of people must believe in something self-evidently wrong and (worse) self-harming for racism to function.

A tiny diversion into surfing: one of the things I noticed is that whenever I want to be by myself and choose a spot where nobody else is surfing, invariably a bunch of people will come in and join me. From my perspective, that’s bad – after all, I wanted to surf without interference – but other people seem to think that the presence of a surfer indicates good waves, so they join in.

There are a number of people – maybe even the majority – that are very sensitive to their social surroundings and mop up opinions from their environment. If someone declares kitten videos cute, they all flock to YouTube and watch a million zillion of them. Tomorrow it’s going to be Gangnam Style – or was that yesterday.

This is fine in the case of waves or kitten videos. But how does that work in the case of economic disadvantage? People are much more sensitive to their loss – how is it possible that they do racists acts despite knowing it will harm them?

The answer, of course, is that they get a different kind of economic benefit by being racist. They lose something (a customer, for instance, or an employee), but they win something else. What could that be?

Social approval. The casual racist operates in an environment where racism is commonplace and “polite.” When faced with an environment that is not casually racist, the casual racist is surprised. Social approval is withheld because of that same sentence that would have granted social approval in the home environment.

Since social approval is a matter of convention and culture, the more a society is fragmented into different cultures, the more the same thing (racism) can be condemned by one group and required by the other. Indeed, cultures define themselves against each other, but highlighting how they are different – not by emphasizing how they are similar.

Now, for that to work, the discrimination must target a group with the following criteria:

  • powerlessness; the group must not be able to defend itself against the dominant culture
  • separation: members of the group must lead lives largely separated from the dominant culture
  • lack of resources: the group cannot overcome the discrimination by buying its way out of it

Which is where African-Americans come in.

Notice how overcoming any of these criteria leads to societal acceptance. Jews, for instance, suffered from strong separation and powerlessness in America. But they had resources and could overcome much of the prejudice they faced with them.

Gay and lesbian Americans, on the other hand, are not separable. As long as they were, they faced strong discrimination. As soon as more people had gays and lesbians in their lives, the stigma began to vanish. The issue, here, is that the separation wasn’t working: there was no gay and lesbian culture that could form independently of the melting pot. It is also interesting to note how the opponents of acceptance of homosexuality focused on the separation aspect: gays, we heard, are promiscuous, STD-saddled hedonists – sufficiently different from mainstream culture not to fit in.

Powerlessness, finally, was the problem of the first group to mount its own insurrection against discrimination: women. Without the right to vote, it’s impossible to demand institutions that represent your needs. Discrimination against women has been a problem for much of human history – despite women forming half the population.

African-Americans, on the other hand, still suffer from institutional powerlessness, cultural segregation, and lack of resources.

This, and not the race, or the culture of African-Americans is the problem that makes racism still an issue.


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