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.