Readers continue the debate:
I take your point that you “don’t believe the law created racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred.” I think, though, that this depends on how you define racism. It seems that what you’re describing is less racism than prejudice. I agree that you cannot totally erase prejudice – that unconscious separation of those “like me” from those “unlike me” – from people’s psyches. The origins of that are surely evolutionary, and were once very valuable on the savannahs of Africa. But racism is an institutionalized system of discrimination based on prejudice. In short, it’s prejudice plus power. That is something that can and should be addressed in policy. In fact, there’s no other way to address it.
Another adds, “Government policy may not be able to “end” racism, but it can definitely reduce it to levels where it may be effectively extinguished.” Another:
It fascinates me how a guy who is clearly one of the most brilliant people out there still has this strange blind spot when it comes to the use of the term “race.” Maybe it’s because “race” took on a different connotation when you grew up in England than it does in the U.S.
Group loyalty may be part of our DNA. But what you fail to understand is that how the “groups” are determined is a separate question altogether. Each of us identifies with dozens of “groups” in a lifetime. Those loyalties change, they can be invoked in countless ways, and circumstances can alter them dramatically. All TNC – along with practically every historian of “race” in America – is trying to illustrate is that the way we’ve chosen to draw up “races” (i.e. groups) in America is not a part of nature. A mere survey of racial imaginings throughout the world will illustrate, for instance, that “the one drop rule” is distinctively American.
And not also Nazi? Or South African? Another:
I suspect that you and TNC may agree more, or at least disagree less, than you realize when it comes to his assertion that racism is created by policy. The issue is, I suspect, a difference in terminology rather than TNC’s “utopianism.” Note that both your and TNC’s uses are options in the following Dictionary.com definition:
rac·ism, [rey-siz-uhm] noun
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
In short, I think you and TNC are using the term racism in different but not contradictory, and even complementary, ways. And I am not sure TNC is suggesting that eliminating existing racist institutions or correcting past ones will eliminate human prejudice (although we are witnessing how these hatreds diminish as people of younger generations gain increasing exposure to difference, which would not be possible without the dismantling of policies that keep them separate from other groups).
I have a very distinct memory of being a small child, probably no older than 5 or 6, and, wanting to be more grown-up, announcing to my parents that I had a “girlfriend” (who of course was just some random fellow kindergartener in my class). They were amused. The punchline, of course, is that she was black (and I am white). At the time, it literally did not register that this aspect of her appearance had any significance whatsoever. I think anyone who works with small children will say my example is typical, and race is simply not important to a child who has not been taught racism. Clearly, then, racism is learned, not innate.
Along those lines, another sends the above photo:
I agree with TNC that racism is taught. I also take your point about evolutionary urges. The attached photo tells more than my words could ever muster. My granddaughter, Lilian, the white one on the left, has spent every week of her life interacting with Adrielle, the black baby to the right. We have been told that when Lilian is at her large community daycare, she wants to play with the black toddlers as her first choice. If racism can be taught, acceptance sure as hell can be taught as well. We chose the latter.