Talk about race consumes us in America. It is probably the most frequent and passion-ridden topic of conversation; even when not explicit, it’s the specter that haunts the subtext in politics, education, economics, housing, employment, and our own personal conversations. Indeed, it is fundamental—in a very literal fashion– to this nation which was founded on the premise that one race gets to work and suffer, and another to rule, simply due to an accident of birth. Our founding fathers already knew when they conceived this nation that the issue of racial difference and slavery was loathsome on all fronts: legal, social and moral, yet they chose to ignore it. It’s even worse to have to admit that national heroes, like Washington and Jefferson, lived the lie, abhorring slavery on principle and in words, yet practicing it anyway for economic profit.
But one question that is largely ignored in everyday conversation is, are human beings hard-wired to be racist? Certainly, scientists had a field day with the subject in the early 2000’s, and there is no shortage of articles written by professionals who purport to report on the “findings” of studies, but how often have you heard the question debated in the popular media? And what is the most probable reaction that you would get if you were to imply in conversation that nature has hard-wired us to be racist? In other words, that it is therefore “natural” to be racist? I’d venture to guess that the immediate reaction would be to suggest that yours is a racist question and that you’re trying to justify racism. In short, that you’re a racist just for asking the question. And so, we shun such a discussion for fear of being branded. In fact, race has become such a delicate and touchy subject in this country that we don’t even dare to mention it when asked to describe the physical appearance of an individual, an indication of how powerfully charged is word and how toxic any mention of it has become.
The completion of the mapping of the genome project in 2004 held all the excitement of Christmas morning for a five-year-old. The scientists, just like excited kids, now had a mountain of brand new, shiny boxes to open and play with! And they quickly found genes for just about every human trait. Don’t like broccoli? Blame it on your genes. In their excitement, they concluded that we are genetically predisposed, or hard-wired, for any number of traits and behaviors, from the simplest to the most complex. And that includes racism.
While the question may not be a part of our everyday conversations, experts from many disciplines have studied it: anthropologists from a cultural-historical perspective, psychologists from a behavioral angle, philosophers through the moral and ethical lens. Although some conclusions are reached and disseminated, if you’re hoping for a definitive answer you can stop waiting. There are solid arguments from both sides.
According to biological determinists, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, author of Are We Born Racist? being among them, “Research shows that human beings have a natural proclivity to make distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’.” This claim is not something that we can dismiss as negligible or superficial; it was precisely the human proclivity to identify and bond only with those who were ‘like us’ (i.e. the ‘in group”) that allowed us to survive as a species at the dawn of history when we needed to be self-sustaining and we relied on a tiny community or ‘clan’, for nourishment, nurturing and protection. Those who weren’t part of ‘our’ group were likely to be acting in the interest of their own group and in a world full of hazards, against ours. To meet up with a stranger implied the need to immediately decide if the encounter was safe or perilous. Getting it right or wrong meant either survival or death. Over the millennia our brains learned this process of judging and evaluating, and evolution reinforced that connection and transmitted it down the generations. Loosely put, with the help of natural selection, this is called hard-wiring.
Neuroscientist David Amodio calls our brains “survival machines” that evolved along this pattern and he implies that without this ability to judge whether or not something or someone is a threat, our species would most probably have died out. Talah Bakdash suggests that people who claim to be “color-blind” are not being realistic. The fact “is that we do see color, and forgetting that is just hiding the issue, instead of actively working against it”. Bakdash explains that there is indeed a scientific component to our perception of race and racial difference. There are “brain structures associated with fear, disgust, and, as some researchers propose, prejudice.” Nevertheless, this scientifically compelling reality is balanced by the fact that there are also “structures involved in suppressing these emotional impulses, like the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the inferior frontal gyrus.” Furthermore, another source explains that infants as young as 6 months can notice race-based differences.
While even in recent years a number of studies have reached the same thorny conclusion about human cognition–that when encountering a person for the first time, our brains automatically make note of the individual’s race–new research indicates that even if this is true, the issue is complicated by the complex interplay of nurture against nature. In short, while biology may play a supporting role, racism is primarily learned.
It may be true that even 6-month-olds can notice racial differences, yet ultimately how this cognition develops in later years is taught. Children learn “from their first teachers—their parents—how to deal with and react to these differences.” Anderson equates this to learning the mother tongue as opposed to learning a new language: “Biology determines a critical early learning period as well as a later window where learning is much harder.” By age 12, the beliefs are set and anything different becomes more difficult to learn. The parents have the first decade to shape the child’s beliefs. According to this theory, racists are made, not born.
In the end, whether we are hard-wired by biology for racist behavior or not is not the real issue. As noted, there is convincing evidence on both sides. Let’s keep in mind that human beings are also predisposed to violence. Look at the history of the species. But just because our DNA may predispose us to murder and violence does not mean that we give in to those instincts. That’s what the socialization process is for: to teach us to curb our unacceptable human tendencies. We learn, as individuals and as a society, to control our impulses, to act fairly towards our fellow human beings, and even to care for them. When socialization doesn’t work, then we have the legal system. At some point back in our history our ancestors came to the conclusion that socialization wasn’t enough, we needed strong deterrents to keep us in line. And so, they codified laws.
In short, even if science tells us that we are hard-wired to one extent or another to mark differences among those we meet, and to judge them and make distinctions based on whether they are one of ‘us’ or ‘them’, don’t blame your DNA if you’re a racist. Instead, let’s teach our children to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated. Human beings are not slaves to their biological impulses; in the chain of life they are distinguished by their ability to reason and to control their behavior. Nature has not decreed, via our genes, that racism is inevitable.