Rising Above Racism Is Imperative for Human Societies

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Rising Above Racism Is Imperative for Human Societies

In his controversial tweet this week, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was defending his counterpart in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

The virulently racist lawmaker Steve King, R-Iowa, is at it again, stoking the flames of white supremacy with his controversial tweet, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” implying that white babies will restore American civilization. In follow-up interviews, King doubled down on his assertion and even recommended the newly popular and wildly racist, anti-immigrant French novel written in 1973, “The Camp of the Saints,” which Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon often references.

King, who reportedly keeps a Confederate flag on his desk, has a history of making remarks that suggest white people are superior to nonwhites, such as the ones he made last year on MSNBC when he said, “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people [besides whites] contribute more to civilization?”

While some of his Republican colleagues have denounced his remarks, the fact is, King simply echoes openly what his party has tiptoed around for years through its anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, pro-police and tough-on-crime policies. Trump, who has arrived slightly late to the game of dog-whistle politics compared with King, has remained stubbornly silent on his fellow Republican’s chilling remarks.

In his controversial tweet this week, King was defending his counterpart in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders. “Wilders,” he said, “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny.” Wilders is one of a growing number of Western politicians who is stoking racial hatred of whites against people of color. His right-wing populist party was poised to sweep Dutch elections but had a poor showing in the end.

Wilders’ increasing popularity is part of a disturbing trend across Europe aimed at scapegoating Muslims and nonwhite immigrants. The election of Trump in the U.S., when examined on a global scale, should not surprise us.

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty recently warned against this trend, naming Trump among other leaders and saying, “Politicians wielding a toxic, dehumanizing ‘us vs them’ rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world.”

I have thought long and hard about the reason why we see so many people putting their faith in opportunistic politicians who are engaged in the politics of fear, paranoia and bigotry. It seems counterintuitive that ordinary Americans and Europeans who are suffering economically would blame foreigners over the wealthy elites that overtly benefit from neoliberal capitalism. The favored theory (which I, too, have espoused) for why scapegoating is common and why it works is that it is easy to distract people from what is truly harming them by pointing to the obvious outsiders.

Scapegoating immigrants absolves the true culprit—neoliberal capitalism and corporate greed—from blame. But this is too simplistic. It does not explain why nearly a third of Latino and Asian voters picked Trump in last November’s election. It also doesn’t explain why so many educated and middle-class whites who were not struggling financially chose Trump over Clinton. After all, Clinton is a white woman who is a proud ally of Wall Street. In most European countries, which have a far stronger welfare state and social safety net than the U.S., it doesn’t seem sensible that whites would pick xenophobic leaders if they are—broadly speaking—able to rely on the state for basic sustenance. Would that it were so simple to end racism by merely ending capitalism and income inequality.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

Evolutionary biologists have a theory that better helps explain the rise of right-wing populism. Of course, racist sentiments and the fear of a shrinking majority have driven whites to pick belligerent leaders. But “territoriality and the endowment effect,” according to Lixing Sun, a biology professor at Central Washington University, plays a strong role, too. Our instincts, developed over evolutionary time periods, to protect what we feel is ours from those perceived to be outsiders plays a role in politics. Even those who were once outsiders succumb to the fear of newer outsiders sharing a piece of the pie. One man, calling himself “Forsetti’s Justice,” who apparently once lived in conservative rural America, wrote in a lengthy piece on Alternet about the racism and xenophobia among white rural Christians that “no amount of understanding, respect or evidence is going to change their minds and assuage their fears.”

One could conclude that it is simply human nature to look out for one’s own self-interest. Indeed, prehistoric events bear out the fact that humans have warred with one another for as long as we have been around. Scientists have found that “warfare is widespread among pre-industrial societies,” and that “warfare occurs among hunter-gatherer societies even when they are surrounded by other hunter-gatherer groups.” The romantic notion that “inter-group conflict was imported by contact with outsiders has been resoundingly rejected for both chimpanzees and human warfare.”

If war is a part of human nature, then so is serfdom, slavery, rape and women’s subjugation. (Matriarchal societies have always been the exception rather than the rule.) But we have rejected those horrific ills, and—in theory at least—the world still rejects racism. We have instituted complex (and admittedly flawed) systems of laws, treaties, courts and policing, to rise above our base natures. Indeed, if the word “civilization” means anything at all, it ought to mean grounding our societies in equality, dignity and respect for all humans. Otherwise King’s idea of civilization is akin to savagery. And in the end, that is what King, Trump, Wilders and their ilk have unleashed: mass savagery of the powerful against the weak.

But thankfully, humans are capable of rising above our primal states. Forsetti’s Justice asked, “Do you know what does change the beliefs of fundamentalists, sometimes?” He explained: “When something becomes personal. Many a fundamentalist has changed his mind about the LGBT community once his loved ones started coming out of the closet.” A similar effect can be seen when examining the popularity of Trump’s idea of erecting a border wall with Mexico. A new Pew study found that “Republicans who live closer to the border are less likely to support the wall than are those who live farther away.”

Cities, particularly those that are more racially diverse, are also good examples and tend to vote more liberally than people living in rural areas. The people in your community are automatically in your inner circle of trust. If that circle is mostly white, you distrust people of color. Conversely, if that circle is diverse, you are less likely to support policies that negatively impact your own friends and neighbors.

The prehistoric impetus to evolutionary benefits from fighting outsiders no longer holds. We have got to rise above our own base instincts and expand our definition of the human family to include all humans. Indeed, our survival as a species depends on it.

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."

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