Why is it so hard to overcome racism? It is strange that in a world where most people tend to agree that racism is a bad thing, there is still is so much left of it. It is incomprehensible that in our civilized societies the specter of fascism is looming again. Most people don’t want to be racist, so why are so many driven by racist motivations of hatred for the racial other? Apparently declaring it a thing of the past is not enough. Education is barely making enough of an impression in order to train us to be good citizens.
Part of the answer is that there is deep-seated antipathy in each individual for that which is strange and that which is not part of the ingroup. Evolutionary psychology tells us that human beings, in order to aid their chances of survival and because they were social animals, flocked together in social groups, where they both found their needs met and protection against danger from outside. Survival was further aided by an attitude of enmity against outsiders.
Nothing makes outsiders stand out as outsiders more than external characteristics such as skin complexion and other bodily features. Cultural habits can be changed, language can be learned, clothes can be exchanged, etc. But we cannot divest of our bodies except in death. Our bodies are what we are. When we meet someone who has different bodily characteristics than the group we belong to that person is the outsider par excellence, a potential danger. The external determines the other as essentially different. That’s what our perception and our group instinct do to us (and of course to the other).
Once a group (the ingroup) gains the upper hand in the struggle with another group that is racially different (the outgroup), the race-based dislike for the dominated group becomes ingrained over and over until we are no longer able to differentiate between the racial otherness and the negative connotations we have learned to attach to it. Racism then becomes a praxis, a cultural feature, a “proven” fact from history, an understanding of the way the world is.
This is what happened when Europeans set their eyes on distant lands and set out to discover the world. They created the imaginary construct of the non-European as black and inferior (it is imaginary because there is no such thing as race). Their theological imagination allowed them to see themselves as heirs to God’s promises and thus owners of the world. Nothing could stop them in their urge to subjugate the world.
The colonial powers added an inventive twist to the exploitation of the non-Western world. They took native people, especially from South America and Africa, to be their slaves. The native peoples and their cultures in South America nearly became extinct, while millions of African people were deported as slaves to the Caribbean, South America, and especially North America.
The presence of the many subjugated and dehumanized African people in the United States led to a hatred and loathing of blacks by whites that the abolition of slavery was not able to stop. The very people who had formed the unwilling backbone of much of the economic growth of America continued to be unwanted and unwelcome inhabitants of what was now their own nation.
These three reasons, ingroup/outgroup dynamics, colonialism, and slavery, while partially explaining the rise of racism do not enough to explain why it is so persistent. After all, until recently most people considered racism a vice, but a lot has changed in a few years. It is outright baffling how, under Trump, racism has gone mainstream again. The days after Trump won the election, racist incidents peaked in the US. The Ku Klux Klan is on the march again, while white nationalists are celebrating their newly won freedom.
Particularly disconcerting is that evangelicals have by and large decided to stand by Trump, disregarding his racism as trivial to the higher pursuit of evangelical ascendancy in power in the name of Jesus their Lord. Isn’t disregarding the racism of such a president itself not an act of racism? I think so and thus I return to my question: why is racism so hard to weed out?
I think the insidious nature of racism consists in this that it often emerges as a hidden feeling as a part of being enculturated into a social class with its own logic, outlook on the world, understanding of its context, and self-justification for its vices. It is hidden because deep inside we are ashamed of it. We know fully well that unfounded hatred for the other is wrong. But it is there and won’t go away. After all, we have assimilated the practices and habits of thought that we share with all those around us who are part of our group.
And this is where racism happens. The very process that makes us part of our social group, through enculturation and assimilation bequeaths us two gifts: (1) The first gift is a basic racism toward the outgroup developed into full-blown racist disgust, hatred, and fear for the racial other who is considered to be inferior. (2) The second gift is a refined system of reasons and explanations that allow the group to be itself including its racism; in short, it is the gift of self-justification.
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The latter, self-justification, joins the former, racism, to form racist self-justification. It takes on many forms: “We are not racist, because we are not racists.” “We are not racist, the others are just . . . . . . (fill in the blank: lazy, dirty, degenerated, etc.).” “We are not racist, we simply work hard to achieve something.” “We are not racist. Why would we? We never see them (says white person living in suburbia).” “That’s not racism, the cop was just defending himself.” “That’s not racism, the suspect behaved suspiciously.” “They were being obnoxious in Starbucks; it has nothing to do with racism!”
This self-justification makes sophisticated vocabulary choices. White mass murderers are “gunmen,” while black ones are “thugs,” or “terrorists.” It employs a schizophrenic spirituality that talks about Jesus in your heart but looks for all-white neighborhoods to live in. It explains blackface and “black Pete” (my own racist Dutch tradition) away as “part of our tradition.”
It Takes Racism to Explain Away Racism
The bottom-line is that it takes racism to explain away racism. There is racism. Let’s call it racism I. But that hidden shameful feeling of racism I cannot be admitted. Besides, admitting this feeling endangers the cohesion of the group one belongs to. So it must be denied, explained away, justified, smoothed over, ignored, re-interpreted, etc. The very act of this denial and this explaining away, however, is an act of racism. Let’s call this racism II. As an act of racism, it intends to cover up racism. It is itself racism, however, precisely because it wants racism to go unnoticed. Racism II thereby ingrains racism I and fosters and furthers it. This is a hard cycle to break through.
In short, racism is so hard to weed out, not just because we all have racist tendencies or because we are burdened with our colonial past, but because we both hate and love it. In our hate for it, we have to deny it and in our love for it, with have to protect it. And thus, it takes racism to explain racism away. Racism hides its ugly face behind more racism.
For that reason, we’re stuck with it until we stop the lie and acknowledge the truth. I’ve had to do this myself. It has taken me quite some time to pick my own racist prejudices apart and to understand what motivated me. But I was willing to look into the mirror of my own racism. In Christianity, this is called repentance. Truly there is no better repentance than the one that turns me to my neighbor, especially the neighbor who is racially different.