R U a racist?

I am a self-confessed racist. If you think that means I should not be writing in a Catholic magazine, I would remind you that you are a racist too. I discovered this descending some narrow stairs on the London Tube. Coming up was a West Indian, so I stepped aside to let him pass. And I felt good about it. Why? Because it confirmed my self-image as a liberal, high minded person who was tolerant towards those of a different race. And you can’t get more slimily racist than that.

Of course we know that there are provocative areas such as antisemitism; we avoid those with great care. But of course that extra degree of care is in itself racist. When those who wish to be critical take pains to emphasise that their remarks are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, they may be being sincere or they may have convinced themselves about the purity of their motivation despite their latent feelings. But it’s broader than that. When different nationalities spring to mind – say Italian, Irish, German – are they accompanied by characteristics which, if we are not careful, give us a convenient background against which to form our judgments? If you have ever said of someone “typical Italian” you are racist.

But it’s broader than that still. Psychologically similar are any automatic reactions to identifiable groups. For the young it may be the old dodderers who have lived too long and disproportionately use up our resources. For the dodderers the young are the immature rejecters of values which our great wisdom assures us are essential. And let’s not forget class – and Bernard Shaw’s remark “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him.”

We can extend this into detail. Why are taller men more readily promoted than their stunted brothers? Why are the bespectacled thought to be more intelligent than the clear-sighted? Why are the attractive less likely to be found guilty in court and to get higher damages when they win a civil case? Why are we more likely to believe someone with brown eyes rather than blue eyes? Why do those with foreign names get fewer professional job interviews? Such irrationalities, and many others, have often been documented.

When we note such a broad characteristic in human nature we presume that it has developed because it is of benefit. And an answer may well be found in evolution. In the most primitive times we moved in small groups, often at a distance from others. Strangers were always dangerous and so the groups which treated them with suspicion were the ones which tended to survive. The unwary groups did not. So this wariness is in our genes. We see this in the lower animals. Make a loud noise and cats shoot out of the room without waiting to consider the degree of danger. That’s why cats survive. The experts call this “fight or flight” to describe the instinctive reaction to threat.

There is a rational basis too. We are continually required to make judgments. But if we were to pause to do the necessary research and to calculate the odds of different outcomes, we would never have time to decide whether to get up in the morning. We actually need to carry a myriad of assumptions stored in the shelves of our minds. It is these shortcuts which record the generalisations which are our starting point. What proportion of these assumptions is soundly based; how many have been uncritically absorbed from undigested experience or the views of our peers? How often do we consider how closely they meet the situation we face? It was Socrates who warned us about our impertinent confidence in the truths which we only think we know.

The outcomes of acting on collective judgments are often trivial. But they can be very serious indeed. Defying Hitler is an autobiographical account by Sebastian Haffner of the German state, from World War 1 to the 1930s (see internet). It shows us how easily a civilised society can be transformed into an evil authoritarian state. Given a restless and frustrated society, the strategy was to create enemies: the Communists and the Jews. Every disaster or violent sabotage was imputed to them through a controlled press. Before long the bulk of society was only too willing to be protected by the Nazis from such fearful foes. Those who disagreed kept quiet or took the consequences. It was not being German which made them Nazis, it was being human.

We cannot avoid collective judgments — which are the heart of racism in its widely differing manifestations — because it is too deep in our genes. But we must be aware that they may lead to injustices. In the end we must judge people as they are, and not as members of their group.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, evolution, Moral judgment and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to R U a racist?

  1. Those of you who remember The Brains Trust in the 1940s will know that Dr CEM Joad would reply to the question with “What do you mean by racist?” There are many types, as Quentin notes, but only the very worst do more damage to mankind than most anti-racists – I suppose Hitler did more damage, but that’s about all, and I could make a case showing that anti-racists as causing more misery than Hitler.

  2. Brian Hamill says:

    The way that Jesus spoke to the Syro-Phoenician woman seems very racist in our terms today.

  3. G.D. says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion “But we must be aware that they may lead to injustices. In the end we must judge people as they are, and not as members of their group.”
    We must be ever vigilant of ‘unconscious’ motives, from personal distaste or inculcated from society, and root them out.

    But I fail to see how the meaning ‘racist’ can be attributed to acknowledging the ‘accidentals’ of a.n. other (individual or group) when there is no wilful intent of ‘superiority’ or malicious destructive intent (prejudice?).

    I am less than perfect when i relate towards any individual, or, more obviously group – this government and it’s supporters come to mind! – if i don’t accept them (love even), but not racist.

    When i discern, acknowledge and denounce harmful traits in individuals or groups (after due discernment, or obvious proofs of course) there is nothing racist about it as far as i can see.
    If i denounce a ‘Nazi’ of whatever nationality, for their supposed ‘superiority’ and racism – am i being ‘racist’? No. Judgemental maybe, but justly so. Not to do so would be ridiculous.
    I may well have missed the point, but did read the post more than once.

    Similarly, if i open a door for an elderly lady am i being ageist or feminist?

  4. G.D. says:

    Ignore my previous post! I get the point now. Was being ‘racist’ in my knee jerk reaction i guess!!

  5. Brendan says:

    Definition of ‘racist’ : – person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races , or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.
    In the democratic liberal mindset of British political life today ,intolerance towards its citizens is becoming apparent by the use of ‘ political correctness ‘, whose agenda is to stifle apparent differences in its citizenry in the name of so-called ‘equality of peoples ‘ ; the aim being to obscure the true nature of the relevance and understanding of the different ‘ cultures in a populace ‘ that make up any society…..with all their strengths and imperfections.
    When leaning the truth about each other, warts and all , the more we put a mirror up to ourselves and hopefully learn the better to live together.

    • G.D. says:

      Yes, Brendan, ‘political correctness’ (amongst other tools, like the media, nationalism, race & even religion) has been widely used for some time now by the ‘governing elite’ (whoever they are!?) to divide and conquer, eradicating collective opposition to what they deem to be a ‘correctly behaved citizen’.
      Namely, an obedient slave to do their bidding as and when ….. Obey and get rewarded, disobey and get punished, by our obedient (indoctrinated) subjects.
      However, more and more people are beginning to wake up to the truth, and see the lies for what they are. Thanks be to God.
      So more brutal measures are having to be used to suppress; thanks be to hard hearts!
      Curse Pavlov for his dogs, and the development of behavioural ‘therapy’. Social manipulation!
      And Bless George Orwell for his prophetic disclosures.

  6. Iona says:

    Brian – I have wondered about Jesus and the way he spoke to the Syro-Phoenecian woman (this is the one to whom he said “It would be wrong to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs”, yes?) I think that in saying this he was provoking her into demonstrating her faith in him; rather than just slinking off like a scolded dog, or alternatively picking up on the “dog” slur and challenging him on it, she let it go, saying in effect “All right, if that’s what you think of me, but I know you can cure my daughter so please come and do it!” – This allowed him to point out to the bystanders that her faith was greater than he had commonly met among Israelites.

  7. John Thomas says:

    “I stepped aside …” no, Quentin, not a racist but a virtue signaller. “Antisemitism” – now known as “Anti-Israel”, in many cases.

  8. Yes,Brendan and GD, I agree, PC really is a terrible ideology. When trying to understand why no public figure dare speak about world population growth Sir David Attenborough said:

    “population growth is a problem…. So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject. ‘It’s not quite nice, not PC, possibly even racist to mention it.’” Sir David Attenborough speaking with HRH Duke of Edinburgh in the chair, RSA President’s Lecture 2011: People and Planet 10th March 2011

    In Yemen the population growth goes 4,8,16,32 in millions beween 1950 nd 2023. Deaths from conflict, famine, and cholera ae now being counted in their 10,000s. In the wider Middle East where populations rocket upwards deaths are counted in 100,000s and even millions. In sub-Saharan Africa the population growth goes 200,400,800, 1600, in millions between 1956 and 2036. This population growth is going to be stopped by war, famine,and disease. Early deaths are already occuring in Uganda and as the disaster spreads the deaths may well reach 100 million, more than double the number caused by Hitler. And it’s happening because its”not PC, possibly even racist to mention it.”

    • Vincent says:

      Yes, Gerry, population should be widely discussed. Do you have the statistics of populations in, say, Europe over the future? Given the low rate of reproduction compared with previous generations you will be able to calculate the future ratios between working age and old age. You might even take into account increased longevity resulting from medical progress. I think you’ll find the opposite problem there.

  9. Thanks Vincent. Europe plus Russia goes 549 million in 1950; 739 million in 2015; and 706 million and falling in 2050

  10. Brendan says:

    Isn’t it entirely probale that the mischievous phenomenon of ‘ fake news ‘ , gaining respectability in some quarters , is a correlated response to the frustration many people feel at the emasculation of perceived truth by ‘ politically correctness ‘?
    These are dangerous precedents being set which does violence to the well-being of society’s members , and the addressing with honesty and with justice the grievances held by some sections of that society. History is littered with such grievances that lack of courage/understanding have failed to address, and are now ‘ coming home to roost ‘ in our present time.
    Tragically, one can see the appalling violence and its tragic consequences among us as one factor among others of the failure to deal with the ‘ running sores ‘ , left unattended too through ‘ political correctness ‘

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