New Evidence That Racism Isn't 'Natural'

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The reaction to African-American faces was found to be weaker in people with racially diverse peers.

There's never been good reason to believe that human beings are naturally racist. After all, in the environment of human evolution--which didn't feature, for example, jet travel to other continents--there would have been virtually no encounters between groups that had different skin colors or other conspicuous physical differences. So it's not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races.

Nonetheless, people who want to argue that racism is natural have tried to buttress their position with evidence that racism is in some sense biological. For example: studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats.

Well, whatever power that kind of argument ever had--which wasn't much, since the fact that a psychological reaction has a biological correlate doesn't tell you whether the reaction is innate--it has even less power now. In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they've performed these amygdala studies--which had previously been done on adults--on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn't kick in until around age 14.

What's more: once it kicks in, it doesn't kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ''these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.''

There's a reason the previous sentence says "suggest" and not "prove." As the authors note, it's conceivable that "the increasing amygdala response to race [with age] may be driven by intrinsic factors of the child, such as puberty, rather than exposure to cultural messages." For that matter, the correlation between peer group diversity and dampened amygdala response doesn't mean the former causes the latter; it could work the other way around: maybe people with a mild response to racial difference wind up with more diverse peers.

But all of this is almost beside the point anyway, because there have always been plenty of reasons to believe that the amygdala response doesn't reflect an instinctive aversion to the racial "other." For example: The amygdala's response to African-American faces had been observed not just in European-American adults but in African-American adults--who aren't, in this case, the "other." Apparently whatever cultural information was inculcating a particular response to blacks in whites was having a similar effect in blacks.

I'm not a blank slater; I don't believe that we're born innocent, and only develop a dark side after bad tendencies are engrained by evil capitalists, or evil patriarchs, or evil warmongers, or evil whatevers. I think that, though we're not naturally racist, we're naturally "groupist." Evolution seems to have inclined us to readily define whole groups of people as the enemy, after which we can find their suffering, even death, very easy to countenance and even facilitate.

But when it comes to defining this enemy--defining the "out group"--people are very flexible. The out group can be defined by its language, its religion, its skin color, its jersey color. (And jersey color can trump skin color--just watch a brawl between one racially integrated sports team and another.) It all depends on which group we consider (rightly or wrongly) in some sense threatening to our interests.

It's in this sense that race is a "social construct." It's not a category that's inherently correlated with our patterns of fear or mistrust or hatred, though, obviously, it can become one. So it's within our power to construct a society in which race isn't a meaningful construct.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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