Before you look for racism, look for tribalism

January, 2015

The New York Times Upshot section recently reported on research done over the years showing what they called “unconscious racism.” Several studies were cited showing, for example, that resumes with black-sounding names were 50% less likely to get call backs than the exact same resumes with white-sounding names.

–Doctors shown identical patient histories were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization to patients identified as black than they were to patients identified as white.

— A regularly repeated HUD study finds that blacks sent out to look for apartments were shown fewer apartments than whites with similar economic credentials.

They interviewed some of the people doing these things and found that most of those who discriminated were shocked at what they had done. They did not believe in the superiority of the white race, and did not believe they were racist.

I agree with them. I don’t think most of them are racist. I believe they’re being tribal.

Tribalism is so ingrained in us humans that we don’t even know it. In pre-modern societies, the tribe was our security and our source of well being. We identified with, and depended on our tribe. We took part in defending our tribe from other tribes. Belonging was a life or death matter.

As the population of the world grew, we started organizing ourselves into nation states, and, for many, the definition of tribe changed. Now we might identify with a country or a part of a country, or an ethnic group, or a religion. But these new tribes continue to exert a strong pull on our thinking and behavior.

For evidence of just how strong this tribalism can be, we need look no further than the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, the Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East, the political and cultural repression of the Uyghurs and Tibetans in China, the Buddhist attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, or those who identify as white in the United States.

There is an old joke about Europe that illustrates modern attitudes. The story says heaven would have British police, French lovers, Italian cooks, German mechanics and be run by the Swiss. Hell, on the other hand, would have German police, French mechanics, British cooks, Swiss lovers and be run by the Italians.

The best description of modern tribalism in the United States comes from the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer’s old song “National Brotherhood Week.”

The white folks hate the black folks
And the black folks hate the white folks
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule

The poor folks hate the rich folks
And the rich folks hate the poor folks
All of my folks hate all of your folks
It’s American as apple pie

The Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Moslems
And everybody hates the Jews

But during National Brotherhood Week
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you
It’s only for a week, so have no fear
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!

There are certainly many racists in this country who believe whites are superior to blacks. Most of us do not hold such beliefs, but we still unconsciously discriminate. I believe that’s old-fashioned tribalism at work, not racism; and it falls more heavily on blacks because it is physically obvious that they come from a different tribe.

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