The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Thing About Racism and Prejudice…

…is the unbelievable stupidity of it.

I can understand prejudice based on culture. I can understand prejudice based on religion. I can even understand prejudice based on subculture (if you can’t, remember “Nazi” can be considered a subculture, and so can “Republican,” and I see plenty of straight up prejudice against Republicans).

I mean, in most cases it’s a bad idea to pre-judge people based on your stereotype of a group, because they may not share the characteristics you dislike and you may be wrong about your stereotype.

But skin colour? Why not hair colour or eye colour? (Well, I guess we’ve done those too, especially with regards to redheads.)

Now if skin colour is a proxy for culture, we’re still in the badlands but not 100 percent stupid, but these fools keep mistaking Sikhs for Muslims (not even close, children), and so on.

But, overall the problem isn’t judging people–we’re plenty good at that. It isn’t assigning them to various identity groups–we’re ace at that. It’s not people joining identity groups, they make us join when we’re kids, and we just keep on doing it.

The problem is that these various identities obscure the common humanity beneath them. They divide us from ourselves and make us alien to our neighbours and fellow humans, when we have far more in common than separates us.

Made alien, we treat each other abominably, and think it’s okay because, “They’re not one of us.”

And here we are, with three existential threats (nukes/climate change/environmental collapse) and we’re spending all our time screaming at each other, running around in fear of each other, when if we don’t act properly, we may drive ourselves to extinction, or at least kill a few billion of us.

Skin colour? We care about skin colour? We’re arguing over who likes to have sex with whom? Over people who’d rather be a different gender from their biological one?

Who cares? None of this is important.

Apocalypse, that might be worth a bit more attention. And in a genuine extinction scenario, we’re all equal–even the rich. (In a simply “very bad” scenario, the rich are betting they’ll be fine. If you want to hate someone, hate the people who made themselves rich by making you poor and killing the poor. Hate people for what they do and have done, not shit that they didn’t choose (like skin colour) or stuff that doesn’t effect you (like their gender or sexual preferences).)

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The Palestinian Option for Kashmir?


Open Thread


  1. Herman

    Racism is an easy answer to the problems of the world. If you think some group of people are the source of most or all of your problems then the answer becomes easy. Just defeat this other group and you are all good. I agree that if you want to blame anybody, blaming the wealthy elites makes the most sense but also at the end of the day when it comes to the possible extinction of the human race we are ultimately all in this together.

    The best course of action would be to see our problems as systemic. Even the wealthy elites are constrained by the logic of the system. But most people prefer to have “bad guys” to attack. It is much more comforting to believe that we just have to identify and defeat a group of evildoers rather than change an impersonal system. I suspect that this is why so many people get into conspiracy theories. It makes you feel smarter than “the sheeple” and it is also reassuring to think that victory is as simple as defeating some group of bad people out there. It is scarier to think that an impersonal system is driving us toward destruction.

  2. ponderer

    I’m sympathetic to your argument. I think the simple answer to why so many people aren’t worried about the things that you are worried about, is that they face a more immediate threat. Economics has always been a killer and so it stays at the top of most peoples lists. Plenty of people are worried about the climate and environment, but not as much as they are about next months bills. Both of our recent mass shooters listed the environment as something they were majorly concerned about though they had very different interests otherwise.

    The Environment and Global Warming are a middle class issue. We have a declining middle class, and only the top 10 to 1% have much hope for the future. Don’t be surprised if Environmental issues take a back seat until our economic (survival) issues are addressed.

    For all the hype Racism isn’t really an issue. It might be flooding our media at any given time but from a rational mathematical perspective, it’s not a significant concern. The vast majority of people feel the same way you do in respect to race. It does work pretty well as a distraction though and keeps people from working on economic issues so it’s pushed hard by elite interests. The KKK, though you wouldn’t know it from the coverage, is only responsible for about 20 deaths from the couple of decades from their height. Drug dealers rack up more than that in the average weekend. The Charlottesville protest that drew supposed thousands in right wing groups from all over the country (and Canada) was in an area of 110 million people. There is probably more black on white crime than white on black.

    Racism is not the reason we aren’t addressing Climate issues. It is because Racism isn’t a economic issue and we can raise a stink about non-economic issues as much as we like and we are encouraged by our betters and media to. If you want movement on the Climate or Environment you have to take care of people economically first. It’s about not putting the cart before the horse.

  3. Willy

    It’s all economics. When the different looking humans show up you don’t care that they’re less muscular and their brow ridges are smaller. It’s when they start eating up all the meat that you start caring.

    I’m more interested in how different groups that’ve been manipulated into being enemies for somebody else’s pleasure, can be led to notice that somebody else and then be unified against them.

    Come to think of it, that tribe of mystical bible bangers tells me it’s all cultural, and when I tell them it’s really economics they point at me and make a screaming bodysnatcher sound.

    This might be more complicated than I thought.

  4. Herman

    @ ponderer,

    I think you are right that most people care about economic issues the most. Every poll I have seen seems to indicate that economic issues are usually the top priorities of most people with the environment located near the bottom. Among people who are deep into politics, like the people who write and comment on blogs, climate change is likely a more important issue but we are certainly in the minority.

    You are also correct that the problem of racism is probably overstated by politicians and media figures. Where I think racism, or perhaps more accurately, identity and tribalism, are important has to do with how they drive how people perceive the world and politics. People might list economic issues as their major concerns yet vote in ways that are not consistent with their economic interests. The working-class Republican who votes for the GOP because it aligns with his identity as a white Christian is a good example, and to be fair you can say the same for poor minorities who might vote for neoliberal Democrats over a left-populist like Bernie Sanders. Look at Obama’s popularity among African-Americans despite the mountain of evidence that he did little to help them and that some of his policies, like the continued militarization of the police, even hurt them.

    I used to think that taking care of economic issues would solve many of our issues and allow us to tackle things like climate change but now I am convinced that I greatly overestimated the extent to which people were “rational” bread and butter voters. I put quotes around the world “rational” because there is a sense that being poorly informed or voting based on identity is rational. Most people will never put a lot of thought into politics. They neither have the time nor the inclination and in any event their vote or participation in the system is not likely to change matters much. Voting based on identity works as a useful mental shortcut for most people even if it sometimes hurts them.

    I think we have to accept that if we are going to tackle many of the big existential issues like climate change the effort will likely have to come from above, from elites, or we will have to wait for a major catastrophe to help shock people into action. Right now most people don’t care and would probably become angry if any politician threatened their consumer lifestyle in any serious way, which is why I am skeptical that anything serious will be done about the environment in the near future.

  5. EverthingsJake

    Pretty sure ATRIOS made a comment to this effect: What if it makes you miss out on TEH SEXY TIME?

  6. StewartM

    And here we are, with three existential threats (nukes/climate change/environmental collapse) and we’re spending all our team screaming at each; running around in fear of each other, when if we don’t act properly, we may drive ourselves to extinction, or at least kill a few billion of us.

    Well said. My thoughts exactly. The ship is sinking, and instead of manning the pumps or doing anything to productive to stop or reverse it the passengers are fighting each other to see who can get dibs on the highest spots on the masts.

  7. nihil obstet

    My history may be weak, but I think racism became an issue with imperialism. We get to take your land and resources for ourselves because you are inferior, so much so that you aren’t using the resources right, and we will. And we can enforce this because you are visually identifiable.

    That seems to be the source of North American racism. Once you’ve seized the land by essentially killing off the inhabitants, you need labor to produce riches for you. First, in the English colonies, they tried indentured labor from England, but that didn’t reproduce itself as labor. As soon as the indenture was fulfilled, the now-free person could get some of the abundant land. Slavery based on skin color was the solution — the person is permanently a laborer, will reproduce themselves, and cannot blend unrecognizably into the European community.

    But to justify the slavery you have to develop a way of seeing the enslaved person as different and ineligible for inclusion in your society outside the instrumental role. Once that way of seeing the person is ingrained, it persists. This is particularly true where maintaining it is a tool in the powerful manipulating the society to maintain their power. Look at how Reconstruction was deliberately undermined to make sure the pre-Civil War elites regained power after the defeat.

    Racism based on physical characteristics was an extraordinary success in advancing imperialism.

  8. mago

    Quite so Ian. Topical. Do you sport red hair?

  9. Hugh

    Racism finds fertile ground in a real grievance. As Ian points out, the targets are just wrong. This is deliberate. It is a weapon of class war. 17.4% of the US labor force was foreign-born in 2018. Millions, probably more than 10 million, US jobs have been shipped out of the country. This along with Fed policy and anti-unionism has devastated the middle and working classes

  10. Bare-footed, barely literate rubes sprawled across a “couch” the backseat out of a nineteen sixty-nine Chevy Suburban drunk and drooling Pavlovianly on the Ambien, Prozac, Viagra and bimbo, bottle blond, bobble-headed crotch-shots on the multi-millionaire mainstream media Kool-Aid.

    It is an induced dyslexia, a learned behavior, a conditioned response. Programming, brain-washing, training monkeys.

    As with all other evil, Religion is at the root of it.

  11. GlassHammer

    “And here we are, with three existential threats (nukes/climate change/environmental collapse) and we’re spending all our time screaming at each; running around in fear of each other,” -Ian

    I think this comes from the belief that the big problems (the ones mentioned above) can only be solved if we have a society with perfect harmonious collaboration and no internal divisions. But in order to hold this belief you need an “other” or an “external intruder” to blame all the internal conflicts/divisions that arise.

    Of course the belief is absurd but its highly useful as a means of control and it allows us to dismiss the failings/betrayal of our leaders.

  12. Ché Pasa

    Personally, I never understood racial antipathy, or really any form of antipathy based solely on what you look like, what you believe, or what your sexual orientation is. None of that ever made sense to me, partly because I was socialized as a child in areas of mixed race and extraordinarily differing experience. Despite the differences, everyone was the same under the skin, and everybody needed one another in the end.

    This was a long time ago in racially segregated California. But despite the nearly universal racial segregation and widespread racial and other prejudice of time, there were pockets of dissent, where people of very different ethnicity and background lived and worked together in relative harmony — not perfect but functional — and to be truthful, they were almost all working class and poor. The Overlords were all, each and every one, white as could be, mostly WASPs of lore and legend, and unshakable in their authority and power, which I would eventually come to realize was based on wealth gained largely through theft and gangsterism. Even if they were pleasant, they were not nice people. They were nasty, brutal, and cruel, and they would rob you blind without a second thought.

    Nevertheless, I had no racial prejudice against them. I still don’t despise them because they are (now almost all) white. It doesn’t occur to me to do so. The issue for me is that they mindlessly exploit people and nature for their own pleasure and profit, and in the process do immense harm, typically unthinkingly, almost automatically, and not doing so simply doesn’t occur to them.

    In other words, my antipathy toward them is based on what they do. Not all of them are so foul, of course, but most are, at least in my experience, and the handful of exceptions don’t make up for the rest.

    Yet when I probe racist prejudice, behold, the justification and rationalization is almost identical. “It’s not skin color, it’s that that they are lazy-good-for-nothings, criminals, ‘animals.'”

    Hm. Maybe these attitudes are hard-wired, but which group they apply to is flexible.

    Ponder it.

  13. elissa3

    Slogan that I’m thinking of printing up as bumper sticker: ALL BLOOD IS RED

  14. bruce wilder

    In the current state of American political discourse, “anti-racism” and anti-sexism have become weapons against those trying to organize a politics around issues of economics and economic class, from the bottom. This inversion is supremely ironic, given the history of wealthy classes organizing politics to their advantage by promoting racism. If you are wondering about the sheer volume of Media attention to racism, when some other issues would seem more urgent or important, I think this dynamic ought to be acknowledged.

    At a time, when outrage is fully justified by issues of ecological collapse and economic inequality, our collective capacity for outrage is being kept in a worn-out state by a political culture of constant outrage synthesized on television or in social media, but directed mostly at nonsense targets.

    To create the liberal consensus against racism and sexism as organizing principles of political society, which they were in the U.S. into the 1950s to an extent and depth seldom acknowledged in historical memory, was the slow work of political agitation stretching back more than a century and a half, at least, in Anglo-American polities. The sexual and civil rights revolutions that culminated in the 1960s and 1970s left a legacy that is being exploited in various ways, including virtue-signalling by those nostalgic for someone else’s heroism.

    The uptick in the sheer frequency with which “racism” and similar issues are discussed in a political Media dedicated to holding back economic change (or collapse) suggests to me that we might be wearing out this set of hot buttons.

  15. Eric Anderson

    You’ve written on this topic from another approach, Ian. Namely, tribalism, and our inability to think our way out of what were evolutionarily adaptive traits.

    What strikes me as preposterous is thinking that we can simply frontal lobe our way past such an engrained evolutionary response. A more rational take would be to examine whether said tribalism survives as an adaptive trait, when billions do die from ecological collapse.

    In times of extreme scarcity, does nature select among those that survive for fear of otherness? Or, amenability to difference?

    My bet: She selects for altruism rather than belligerence. Species can only afford belligerence when the fruit hangs low. In scarce times it takes too much energy to fight.

  16. Willy

    Humans probably succeeded because within successful tribes, altruists balanced out (could work with) their belligerent brethren, and vice versa, for adaptive solutions to tribal problems. Tribes could be more flexible in adapting to whatever environmental conditions that way. I base this on temperamental genetics, as tested today, which seem more diverse than any other species. This is currently far from an exact settled science but seems plausible to me. Our learned culture and politics sits on top of that foundation, hence all the variations.

    But then there’s personal experience. Or more to the point, emotions derived from personal experience. There’s a liberal blog where hating illegals is racism. I’ve never presented the point of view of the powerless native worker who’s been displaced by illegals. But I suspect I’d be declared a racist, officially tagged “the other”. The blog owner/writers are attorneys and academics. I’m not aware that their livelihoods are under any pressure from incoming illegal attorneys and academics. You’d think that being well-educated they’d be aware of that and do a little more nuanced thinking, but they don’t.

    I’m sure they’re aware of all the tent cities and unofficial RV parks becoming increasingly prevalent in west coast cities, a recent phenomenon which none of us ever grew up with, but do they ever wonder why those people cant just stay off the drugs and go do all “the dirty jobs” which the hardworking illegals gladly do? Or why these camps haven’t self-segregated along racial lines? I’d try to explain that it’s easier to climb up than it is to fall down, but they may not be able to relate. I don’t think any of those writers has ever fallen down.

  17. John Zimmerman

    I agree with the phrase that “no one is born a racist” but I think we are easily triggered based on our adaptive response (I am no sociologist or expert of any kind). If you were a Pawnee hunter on the plains of America in 1400, your biggest danger out hunting was not a grizzly bear but running into Sioux or Arrapahoe, right? So we are easily triggered into tribalism/racism. I always find it a bit frustrating when so many talk about how racist America is, when I think it is very common and most people can be triggered with sufficient cause, some less than others. I doubt that black folks are treated well in, say China or Japan. I have seen light skinned folks emphasized in advertising in Chile even. We look worse than many because we have had a terrible history with black folks and we mix races more than most.

    One thing that would help would be for our side to combat prejudice with facts. We hear about all the crimes committed by brown-skinned immigrants from the right all the time. How often do we hear an immediate rejoinder with the fact that native born commit crimes at a higher rate? Not nearly often enough. Also, highlight the economic positive that the brown skinned immigrants bring and all the intellectual accomplishments of black Americans. Fight ill-informed bias with facts.

  18. Ten Bears

    A long read, but worthy: Clearly, impeachment is not going to save us. God knows what will come of other hearings. Trump is not going to be shamed or embarrassed into dropping out. Maybe this Jeffrey Epstein stuff will sink Trump or maybe not. We can’t rely on others or fate or anyone other than ourselves to save us. While I would love an old-fashioned storm-the-barricades, tear-down-the-wall, drag the tyrant to the gaol, that’s fantasy. In the real world, our options are fairly limited. The ballot box is one of them. No matter where you stand as a Democrat, and indie, or on the left, getting people to the polls is an effective way to work together. It isn’t sexy or radical, but it is what we have. We’d be a fool not to use it.

    Again, be concerned about Trump and his fans’ racism and hate. It is bad, really bad, but this is nothing new for Trump or America. We heard these words justify slavery and Native American genocide. They were chanted in support of the Chinese Exclusion Act and in support of Jim Crow. They were used to hold women down and to terrorize gays and lesbians. When the Civil Rights Movement sang, racists countered with Mass Resistance. Fundamentalist Christians fill their hymnal full of these vile verses. These new words for the same old song, sung by the same people over and over again. We’ve fought them before, now, and will have to fight them in the future.

    And fight is what we have to do: Focus and fight smart, fight effectively. Quit worrying about what they might do and concentrate on what we are doing (and if you aren’t doing anything, perhaps it is time for you to get active). We know what they are and what they are capable of: Worrying about them does not help us. Tallying every shitty thing they say and do is a burden. We know what we are up against. The threat has not changed. Accept that as part of life, just as you would mosquitos and cancer. Now fight the threat. Let’s send Trump back to where he came from and make the hater-mongers afraid of us. /

  19. Adams

    I said something like this when giving a report in my 8th grade English class. \”People who judge others based on the color of their skin are just stupid.\” After class the teacher told me to stay over and said to me that I should be careful of what I say and that I need to understand that some people do not agree with me. Violently. 60 years ago.

  20. Pelham

    Racism isn’t rational but it’s profoundly human. Apparently infants have built-in negative reactions to images of people of a different race. So there’s really no reason for mystification over racism’s persistence.

    Among the more serious questions to ponder are whether it’s adaptive or maladaptive and what to do about it, if anything? In the US we’re bombarded with the mantra that proclaims racial and cultural “diversity” to be a strength — contrary to a great deal of hard evidence. We’re also supposed to celebrate the population trend that will soon make the country majority-minority (like Iraq, I suppose) — without ever asking the current majority white populace if they believe that’s a sound idea. (Note: Only 24% of Americans queried in a recent poll believe their own neighborhoods should be more diverse.)

    The assumption seems to be that if majority whites react badly to the current degree of diversity they must be made to like it by injecting still more diversity. I suppose the lashings will continue until morale improves. I prefer to think, however, that any nation at some point in its history takes on a certain character. And at that point its people should have the sovereign right to decide collectively — on racial, cultural or any grounds whatsoever — whether they wish to preserve that character or allow it to change.

    Do you disagree? If so, who would you entrust to make such decisions?

  21. Hugh

    “Racism isn’t rational but it’s profoundly human.”

    This is a logical error. Slavery, child abuse, and human sacrifice have occurred through human history. There is nothing human about any of them.

    “Apparently infants have built-in negative reactions to images of people of a different race.”

    So if a kid has parents from two different races, is he/she confused as to which to hate or do they hate them both?

    “the mantra that proclaims racial and cultural “diversity” to be a strength — contrary to a great deal of hard evidence.”

    Gotta love the appeal to “hard” evidence without actually giving any, and then there is the recourse to blaming anything that ails you on whatever you dislike.

    I think what most people are reacting to is a rapacious overclass looting the rest of us and setting us against each other so that they can keep said loot, but YMMV.

  22. Mike Barry


    Racism isn’t rational but it’s profoundly human. Apparently infants have built-in negative reactions to images of people of a different race.

    Uh, no. About a week ago while at a local Dollar Tree, I had to exit an aisle that was being blocked by a black family. This required to brush past a baby carriage. As I did so, the baby offered me a drink from its baby bottle. (I declined.)

    So I guess that baby didn’t get the memo.

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