The race to judgment

2012-10-20 11:11

Globally pervasive prejudice is a relatively recent historical invention

The rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex. All laws which discriminate on grounds of race, colour or belief shall be repealed.”

These uplifting and momentous passages from the Freedom Charter of South Africa of 1955 were later echoed in the country’s 1996 Constitution.

In the latter half of the 20th century, discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, religion or national origin was increasingly considered a violation of basic human rights, in South Africa and in most countries.

Despite this, differential treatment of people by race and colour has persisted in South Africa and other countries with long histories of legalised segregation and discrimination.

When the roots of this problem are explored closely, we see a pattern of treatment that is based on the mistaken belief that groups differ in their intellectual capacities and potential, their moral resolve and behavioural predilections, and that these qualities are related to skin colour and race.

The persistence of hidden and strong racism is rooted to deep-seated beliefs in biogenetic determinism, and the conviction that different groups of people are born with different inherent capacities, and that these determine a natural social order.

That such ideas continue in the 21st century is viewed with disbelief by academics and scientists, who are quick to cite evidence that biological races don’t exist and that races are “only” social constructs. Yet, the lived experience of race persists for many of the world’s people.

Despite ever more genetic evidence confirming the nonexistence of races, beliefs in the inherent superiority and inferiority of people remain part of the modern world. Many of these are based on a belief in a “natural hierarchy” of skin colour, and the conviction that human worth grades people from white to black.

Where does this erroneous belief come from and why does it persist? It is worth considering first how the diversity of human skin colouration evolved.

Melanin pigment is responsible for the nearly infinite gradations of brown that characterise human skin. Melanin in its darkest form, eumelanin, is the most important and common pigment in skin and is one of the most effective sunscreens in nature because of its ability to absorb ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

All people evolved in Africa under strong equatorial sun and had skin that was dark and rich in protective eumelanin.

For more than half of the history of our species, from roughly 200 000 to 80 000 years ago, we were Africans and our pigmentation underwent fine-tuning as we moved and adapted to local environmental conditions within Africa.

Small groups of darkly pigmented people began dispersing from the continent about 80?000 years ago. Some early migrants moved along the coasts of southern Asia, others into eastern Asia, and others into central and northern Europe.

The migrations brought people into less sunny places and – in both the ancient Europeans and east Asians – independent genetic changes or mutations occurred in the populations to produce lightly pigmented skin.

UV radiation is mostly harmful, but small amounts of UV-B are necessary for producing Vitamin D in
the skin.

The evolution of depigmented skin made it possible for people living in UV-B poor places to produce Vitamin D in their skin. Some lightly or moderately pigmented populations eventually moved back into regions of strong sunlight and intense UV radiation and, predictably, became darker.

Changes in skin pigmentation were local adjustments to prevailing conditions. Because of the skin’s importance as the body’s primary defence against the environment, it has been under intense scrutiny by natural selection for most of our history.

As human populations expanded, many human groups that had previously been isolated from one another began to make contact and trade, and it is under these circumstances that groups of people with visibly different skin colours began to have routine contact with one another, along the Nile River and the shores of the Mediterranean.

What occurred there is instructive and salutary.

From the art and historical records of ancient Egypt and Greece, we know that people clearly recognised differences
in skin colour in one another, but that these differences did not affect their relationships or business transactions. Skin
colour was noticed, but it was not equated with human worth.

We notice skin colour because it is our most visible trait and because we are highly visually oriented animals. This doesn’t mean that we are genetically “programmed” to be biased, rather that we form our impressions of others and the world around us primarily through what we see.

We compare new visual perceptions to visually based memories. Our reliance on vision permeates every aspect of our lives as social beings.

We observe people around us keenly and when we don’t know what to do, we often decide by watching the actions of those we know well or respect.

We imitate. When we are young, we observe and imitate our mothers and caregivers, and pay close attention to the social nuances conveyed by body language.

Heightened visual awareness and adept imitation help to ensure that we fit into our social group. These activities are also conducive to our being liked and having positive behaviours directed towards us. We not only look at how authority figures are acting, but also listen to them carefully and imitate the social categories they use.

We learn to prefer individuals or groups that adults around us have emphasised, even if the adults have never said anything explicitly good or bad about them. The transmission of bias starts slowly and subtly.

We learn to put people into categories based on similarities in the way they look or act and by the ways in which authority figures around us act around them. Our minds appear to be organised in a way that makes it easy to classify people into distinct groups and then to favour our own group, the “in-group”.

But our reactions towards members of out-groups are not automatically negative and they are not all or nothing. They are determined by neural responses in the brain (especially in the amygdala) that develop as we detect fear or anxiety among those around us and begin to feel or mirror it ourselves.

Brain reactions to out-groups by themselves don’t create stereotypes, but repeated reinforcement of positive or negative associations do.

And it is especially verbal labels that count.

When we examine the details of human interactions through prehistory and history, it is clear that social contacts and trading networks in the ancient world, until the Middle Ages, were determined by similarities and differences in culture and language, not by skin colour.

Slavery existed, but the enslaved were usually captives of war regardless of colour.

This situation changed after the Middle Ages as long-distance travel by sea became faster, safer and more common, making it possible for people to come into contact with distant others abruptly, often without any prior knowledge of the other’s existence.
When this occurred, the parties involved were often mutually startled by each other’s appearance. Such meetings were rarely on equal social or military grounds.

European explorers travelling by sea were looking to plunder and were hardly egalitarian in their attitudes: their descriptions of “others” often were less than charitable. Darkly pigmented skin astonished most Europeans and their travelogues of the time described the colour of distant peoples in lurid and, often, pejorative terms.

The first scientific taxonomy of humans created by Carl Linnaeus in 1735 separated humans into four varieties by skin colour and continent, but by 1758,

Linnaeus defined these groups not only by skin colour and continent, but by temperament (“sanguine” for Europeans, “melancholic” for Asians, “choleric” for Native Americans and “phlegmatic” for Africans).

The combining of folk beliefs about aptitudes and character along with physical traits in an authoritative classification created the intellectual foundation for racism as we know it.

From this point on, demeaning associations of character, culture and physiognomy could be included in treatises on human variation and could be considered scientific rather than personal and emotional expressions of disgust, discomfort and prejudice.

Less than 20 years after Linnaeus’ revised taxonomy, Immanuel Kant published his own influential ruminations on human variation in 1785, in which he named, for the first time, “races” of humanity (“rassen” in German) that were defined by skin colour and place of origin.

For Kant, races were fixed and immutable, and for him and most philosophers and thinkers that followed, the equation of skin colour with character signified that lighter-coloured races were superior and darker-coloured ones inferior, and that members
of the latter were destined to serve the former.

Kant’s ideas about colour and character achieved wide and lasting acceptance because his writings were widely circulated, his stature as a philosopher and scholar was great and, for the most part, his audience was naive and generally had no personal experience with the darkly coloured people whom he disparaged in his writings.

The linking of blackness with otherness is one of the most powerful and destructive intellectual constructs of all time. Views on the inherent superiority and inferiority of races were readily embraced by the intelligentsia of western Europe and eventually by the general populace because they supported existing stereotypes.

Over many generations, ideologies of colour-based race became rigid as they were collectively reinforced by stereotypes and multiple cultural traditions. The concept of human “races” developed when skin colour became attached to sets of other physical, behavioural and cultural traits, which were then considered an immutable package.

This package then became associated with the idea of inherent social rank. It was propagated widely by respected authorities and transmitted faithfully as a stereotype. Races then persisted along with the implicit hierarchies they imposed.

Race labels that are associated with negative depictions and narratives can have powerful effects on members of
out-groups and can also have remarkable effects on in-groups by planting in people’s minds the idea that their own group is superior, inferior, smarter, stupider, stronger or weaker than another.

The tendency to develop stereotypes is universal, but our reactions to them are culturally determined and contingent. Humans are suggestible. If a physical trait is associated with something bad, a negative stereotype can develop quickly.

Most people accept the realities of racial categories as fundamental truths, but the categories exist only because people and societies believe them to be true.

Racial categories have become institutional facts because their very existence requires special human institutions such as language. Specific bodily traits do not define a group so much as stand as imperfect markers for it and as signals that trigger a stereotyped response.

In this way, skin colour becomes a symbol for the institutional structure of race, and the race label associated with colour becomes determinate of personality and individual experience, and itself a destination.

Stereotypes have powerful effects on behaviour, including performance. Nearly 20 years ago, a team of social psychologists published a classic paper on the phenomenon of “stereotype threat”.

They theorised that the underperformance of African-Americans on standardised tests was because of the influence of the prevalent cultural stereotype on their performance.

When a difficult test was represented as being diagnostic of ability, it caused African-American students to feel under threat of judgment by a racial stereotype and undermined their performance.

Since that publication, similar studies have supported and extended the findings, and “stereotype threat” has been found to be influential in many contexts.

Fortunately, the adverse effects of stereotype threat on performance can be reduced if a strongly positive and overtly successful role model buffers the negative effects of racial stereotypes.

Most people are not aware of the influence of stereotypes on their own thought processes,and this lack of awareness in connection with stereotypes based on skin colour and race names has had profound effects on human history.

Recognising our obsession with the visual and our susceptibility to influences from the cultural mélange, we need to examine how skin colour and race labels have affected human social interactions and the course of history, in South Africa and across the world.

We are not doomed to continue cultural traditions of racism, but in order to destroy them we must understand how they were constructed and reinforced.

Human attitudes are constantly subject to revision through experience and, more importantly, conscious choice.

Biases can be modified and eradicated on the basis of experience and motivation, and stereotypes can be changed when people are motivated to think about someone, in any way, as a member of their own group. We are all one people.

» Jablonski is a professor of anthropology at Penn State University in the United States and author of Living Colour. This article is adapted from the New Scientist, with permission

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