Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Race Matters: Is Biology Destiny?

Is racial prejudice, so much in the news as African American youth come in conflict with mostly white police officers, a learned behavior, or is it innate?

Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times piece blew me away with his summary from a study, published in  Psychological Science, by a Harvard researcher that indicates we have in our brains an ingrained tendency to racial bias.   "The human brain seems to be wired so that it categorizes people by race in the first one-fifth of a second after seeing a face."

This is very disturbing, at least to me, having thought we learn about racial difference as we grow up.  I think of the boys playing next door to me: two whites and one black, long-time buddies. I thought young kids were color blind.

But Kristof's summary tells us that even infants show a preference for their own racial group: the type of faces they are familiar with. Does this mean we are doomed to spend our lives judging and possibly hating those unlike us?

Whatever the evolutionary origins may be, the answer is no.  The penchant for one race over another does not mean that this is one's destiny.

Kristof suggests that, if we make friendships with other races and come to admire certain athletes or heroes of other races, we will grow more tolerant, thereby overcoming the biological pre-disposition.    We may have hidden gender and racial biases, but we might also disapprove of them; and we can work to counter them.

I thought about some of this while watching a documentary about the Roma people, often called Gypsies: "A People Uncounted," which focuses on the Holocaust and the long-standing prejudice by the white majority in Europe against darker-skinned "gypsies," often stereotyped in story and song as thieves and musicians.  They came to Europe from India a thousand years ago and remain the most widely discriminated against group, with twenty percent of these people experiencing hate crimes today.

There are, I learned, about 12-15 million Roma in Europe; 500,000 were killed at Auschwitz or in mass shootings, and the film gives too much emphasis, I think, on this tragic past and not enough on the present.

The story of the Roma people is important because it has generally been overlooked: these people rarely have had the education or social structure to become writers and academics; they remain wanderers or shunned as outsiders at a time when racism in Europe is on the rise: stories about anti-Semitism make it into the news but rarely do we hear of the Roma people.

The main voice of hope in this bleak view of the European Union and its prejudice is that positive things can occur at the local level: if families, communities, and churches take action on a case-by-case basis, discrimination can be fought.

But the roots of this animosity grow deep, deeper than the thousand-year history of gypsies in Europe, as deep as the brain itself.  Apparently.

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