Racism: Natural or Cultural?


“Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.”
― Kofi Annan

“While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races of men. There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more ennobled by mental cultivation than others—but none in themselves nobler than others.”
― Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe: Part One, 1858

“All nationalistic distinctions – all claims to be better than somebody else because you have a different-shaped skull or speak a different dialect – are entirely spurious, but they are important so long as people believe in them.”
George Orwell

Postulating racial discrimination as natural in the human condition is tantamount to granting it a universal biological rootage. In this sense, it is normal to assume that human beings are racist in varied degrees as they relate with others of different racial origins. The issue of racism taken in this light is therefore not basically one of ethical concern since it is ordinarily assumed and expected that in normal circumstances all human beings are more or less racist. Superficially, it doesn’t look harmful at all and hence negligible per se for racism as being “race-centered” could simply be taken as a natural attitude of giving more importance and concern for the well-being of the people of a particular race where one belongs. Analogically, we generally have the same attitude of showing more concern and love towards our own families–i.e., being family-centered–without necessarily being antagonistic and adversarial towards other families.

Being professionally non-scientific and much less a trained biologist or geneticist for that matter, it is not however within the scope and limits of my present concern to investigate in the general sphere of biology and the specialized discipline of genetic science the possibility of racial discrimination as inherent and therefore natural to the biological constitution of the human organism. Besides, the assumptions on the issue at hand that perhaps racism is natural is all theoretical and do not meaningfully connect with what has actually taken place so far in the course of human history. Racial discrimination as we have witnessed it is fraught with animosity, violence and even death of genocidal magnitude. Considering all these conditions, the issue of racism as natural is not really under attack (at least, not yet) but a concern that needs to be viewed ethically.

It is an unquestionable human reality that there are in us certain natural and thus inherently biological tendencies (even propensities) to act in some ways that could be offensive and injurious in varied degrees to others. It doesn’t however necessarily follow that something of such natural character should at all times be given an expression and therefore performed based on the single assumption that such is an inherently biological (or biologically inherent, if you will) matter. In this connection, the more serious issue is not whether racism is natural or otherwise but on the fact that through generations in human history, racism has wrought havoc and destruction of lives and properties in practically all parts of the world. Uncritically assuming that racism is natural, it is nevertheless an extremely grievous specter of dehumanization that needs to be constantly overcome in the course of human history.

Yet, contrary to the above position is the belief that racism/racial discrimination is never natural or inherently biological but rather a matter of cultural programming.  It is generally considered that the human species as a child is fundamentally “color-blind,” i.e., devoid in her/his consciousness of whatever pertains to racial discrimination. This position, in my opinion, is both empirical and reasonable as what we have witnessed and observed has given us convincing instances that in societies where racism is an alarming situation, cultural orientation is the culprit. Its toxic substance is passed from one generation to the next and the programming process starts at home. Children at an early age are henceforth conditioned to believe that since they belong to a race more “superior” than those of the others, the issue of not mixing with the latter is the basic norm. Over and beyond it is the more serious attitude that should be developed and sustained along the way of growth and maturation which is one of animosity and hatred.

Reinforcement is an important aspect of such cultural programming so that in the context of a society where racial discrimination is so pronounced, racists have actually gotten beyond the conditioned acts and have even advanced towards the level of intellectually thematizing their racism by coming up with seemingly objective studies on the issue of one particular race’s superiority over another by invoking principles grabbed from the pseudo-science of eugenics. At its most blatant and heinous operationalization, racism gets a strong political color and in certain known and recorded instances is termed as “ethnic cleansing”.

Racism in its cultural form is sustained by reified principles that constitute the dynamics of how the next generations should likewise be programmed as their predecessors. A new set of conditioning mechanics may be assembled to adapt to new exigencies but the dynamics remain the same. There is in fact a preponderance of empirical evidence in history and current events to support the notion that racism is prime and foremost a matter of culture and not of nature. Races are natural but racism is fundamentally cultural. We saw it in South Africa during the apartheid era which Palestine has likewise been going through for generations while being oppressed by Zionist Israel.

However, racism as a serious problematique is not a monolithic one but in most, if not all, instances is coincidental with the political or the economic or the social or even a combination of any or all of these factors. This consideration sustains more the notion that racism is more cultural than natural. In the case of Nazi Germany, racism was coincidental to an adversarial positioning against what was then perceived as Jewish dominance in the economic affairs of Germany. In the US, racial discrimination of the European-American populace towards the African-Americans was more of a social-status issue which had grown from an economic condition that spawned the mentality that the raison d’etre of African-Americans in the US was for the sole purpose of being “used as tools of economic production”.

Pockets of racism, big and small, are all over the world. Yet, there is nothing to blame about this hideous problem except the fact that cultural unilateralism initially spawns it to its negative extremes and drives it onwards to its most despicable form.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 8 October 2014


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