Race and The Raging Brain
Nothing justifies the scourge of racism, but human history at least explains it. We’re wired to like people who are like us. How does that turn into hating everyone else?
By Jeffrey Kluger – TIME Your Brain: A User’s Guide
IN 2009, AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN PRESIDENT held a Passover seder in the White House. Chew on that for a second. Time was, such a scene was not just improbable; it was laughable—literally— the kind of setup a Borscht Belt comedian or late-night TV host would use for an easy punch line. And laughter was the best you could have hoped for. Let too many people think too long about the real prospect of a black President’s hosting a Jewish ceremony in the U.S. Executive Mansion and, well, it doesn’t pay to contemplate the kinds of demons you might unleash.
But that was then, this is now, and President Barack Obama’s historic seder registered as a one-day, three- paragraph story tucked somewhere inside the morning newspaper. The fact that the moment made so little news might be bigger news than the seder itself. The human species is not always a rational one, but we have managed to move along in a ragged march that for all its setbacks has been a steady climb from savagery to civilization, from subsistence to the grand achievements of art and science and philosophy. And in the midst of all that, there’s been the bloody matter of race.
Like many other animals, we are a species that comes in a whole palette of colors. Unlike all other animals, however, we have a complex brain that allows us to as sign complex meanings to those colors. White skin is good, brown skin is worse, and black skin is worst of all—unless, of course, you’re black or brown, in which case things run the other way. It’s not color alone that drives us apart. When we’re not tribalizing ourselves by race, we’re doing so by religion, by language, by history, by geography. So Hutu slaughter Tutsi, Nazis massacre Jews, Turks kill Armenians, and Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Shfites, Christians and Druze fight back-and-forth wars that last for generations and resolve nothing at all. But it s race that historically divides us most starkly. What is it about color that inflames and divides us so? Why is it that so inconsequential a thing can summon such demons from such deep places? Answers do exist—in our history, in our families, in our genes, in our brains. And more and more, researchers are teasing them out.
Whatever else you can say about humanity’s racist ways, the fact is, we come by them naturally. There are few species on the planet that aren’t aware of the concept of friend and foe, us and other. “You see it all the way down to tadpoles, which preferentially associate with other tadpoles depending on how closely related they are,” says biologist Jay Phelan of UCLA, a co-author of the book Mean Genes. “Animals are good at this, they’re fast at it, and it’s pretty clear what the adaptive value is.” Humans are no different, nor would we want to be. The moment you get old enough to toddle away from the communal campfire, you’d better be able to distinguish between the individuals you know—and who mean you no harm -and the ones you don’t. “Historically, we lived in small bands but would sometimes come into contact with people in other bands,” says anthropologist Yolanda Moses of the University of California at Riverside. “The whole idea of us and them is part of being Homo sapiens.