Monday, December 12, 2005

The End of Racism?

This post asks a question that has been lingering in my mind for the past week, prompted first by my re-reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and, more recently, the race riots last month in France and yesterday in Australia. The question is this: “Will racism ever go away?”
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In the past I’ve seen fit to suggest that given enough time, truth always wins out. What do I mean by “truth”? Certainly nothing like the triumph of good over evil, or morality over whatever suite of behaviors you might find immoral. In many respects I was referring to the vindication of scientific '”truths” - the heliocentric model, evolution, and the like.

At the moment I’m not prepared to personally take on the enormous literature discussing truth generally, and the “truth” of racism specifically. But I do have a question: Is the notion of racism – that individuals can be identified as somehow inferior on the basis of their external appearance – one that is grounded in biology? Or is it a socially created myth, designed to perpetuate and reinforce inequalities and narrow-mindedness that will, eventually, wither away and die as an idea.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written in 1960, which is almost half a century ago, and is set in the mid-1930s. At least from what we see in the papers, and from what I’ve witnessed in my own life, I'm not convinced that we've come too terribly far in this country since then. While things have changed at the institutional level - e.g. we don't allow schools to require or permit segregation by law - I'm not sure all that much has changed at the level of individual relations. If anything I suppose that I’m wary that unchanged attitudes have simply been driven forced to take refuge and to fester behind closed doors and repressed thoughts.

So, in summary, my questions are these:
- Is racism an idea that will go away?
- If so, is it now in the process of receding and withering?
- Is there biological truth in the idea of racism that, although indubitably harmful, renders us unable to purge it from our society specifically, and from the species Homo sapiens more generally?
- And finally, and relatedly, are primates (or other animals) ever “racist”? Is that even an intelligible question to ask?

While I’m certain there’s a wide body of literature already available on this topic, I’m curious to learn what people think.

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