How Racism Was Made

TNC mulls it over, after his illuminating NYT column:

Last night I had the luxury of sitting and talking with the brilliant historian Barbara Fields. One point she makes that very few Americans understand is that racism is a creation. You read Edmund Morgan’s work and actually see racism being inscribed in the law and the country changing as a result.

If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.

I do not see how one can remove from the human psyche the deep evolutionary urge to determine friend from enemy. Group loyalty is deep in our DNA. It was integral to our survival for over 200,000 years. The meek did not inherit the earth. They were killed by bigots.

And in fact, we have only really had a few centuries of real multi-racial and multi-cultural societies which have not explicitly adhered to codes of “us” and “them”. I don’t think group hatred will ever end in human consciousness, because I think the law reflects our original sin, and cannot erase it. I think, for example, that there will always be homophobia – even if we lived in an idea left-liberal world in which the government policed our statements and indoctrinated us effectively in schools. Gay kids – simply because they are different – will be targeted by other kids for ridicule, exclusion and bullying. We should do what we can to protect them – but lying to them by saying that homophobia will one day disappear does not seem to me to be giving them any favors.

In other words, I don’t believe the law created racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred. It can encourage or mitigate these profound aspects of human psychology – it can create racist structures as in the Jim Crow South or Greater Israel. But it can no more end these things that it can create them. A complementary strategy is finding ways for the targets of such hatred to become inured to them, to let the slurs sting less until they sting not at all. Not easy. But a more manageable goal than TNC’s utopianism.