Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Is Human Nature Racist?

Human nature is not innately racist. It is human nature to feel empathy for and behave altruistically toward those in your group, but not necessarily toward those outside your group. Through most of human history, human groups were confined within human races. Kids were raised to be racists because other races were outsiders.

But when kids of different races grow up together, they do not express racial hatred unless their parents or other members of society educate them to do so. Rogers and Hammerstein said in South Pacific something like, You have to be carefully taught to hate, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate…

One of the best places to see this is where I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was the scene of one of the worst racial incidents in American history, when in 1921 white racists burned down “Black Wall Street” (see also here) which was one of the most affluent black business centers in the country. All that remains today are some metal placards in the sidewalks that indicate which black businesses were burned down. Reportedly, whites flew airplanes over the black Greenwood section of town and threw incendiary material onto the buildings. I interpret this as an act of war by white Americans against black Americans.

In the first photo, visitors from France were with us to see the placards.

And yet today you can find white and black children playing together all over town. Not quite everywhere, but certainly in my neighborhood. In the intervening 92 years, racism has been largely unlearned in Tulsa. Problems remain, of course; last year a white police officer drove to the home of a black man and shot him. It has taken a long time—interracial marriage (“miscegenation”) was illegal in some states until 1967—but the progress has been astonishing. (The miscegenation laws were aimed at blacks and whites, apparently not at GIs bringing home Asian wives.)

These and other events make me suspect that there might be, among the many and diverse elements of human nature, an anti-racist sentiment floating around. It might be simply one aspect of the emotion of love. I do not know what it is. But it came seemingly out of nowhere into the mind and heart of an eleven-year-old boy who should have, by nature and nurture, been racist. If this anti-racist element indeed exists in human nature, we should embrace it and celebrate it.

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