The American Idea: Why Do We Hate Each Other?

In a 1921 essay, an Atlantic author asks, "Why do we like one person or race, and dislike another?"

The immigrant-body.jpg

This early 20th century lithograph asks "The immigrant. Is he an acquisition or a detriment?" / Library of Congress

Why do people of different races and ethnic origins dislike one another?

That's an enormous (and loaded) question, and it's one that eludes an answer. But such a question is appetizing fodder for armchair columnists, and in a 1921 essayAtlantic author and New England clergyman Francis Edward Clark tried to explain what he saw as an inconsistency in human behavior. When he looked around the globe, and within America, he saw no coherent patterns in the ways people hated one another.

For one, he reasoned that skin pigmentation alone could not be the basis for hate. It seemed arbitrary that black skin was considered unfavorable, but "red" (Native American) skin was seen as dignified:  

Why is it that Indian blood is esteemed so much more desirable than African blood? In many cases both are equally tawny. Yet even society queens, if the newspapers are to be believed, are proud to count their generations back to Pocahontas; while no one could be elected to the upper ten who was a forty seventh cousin to Toussaint l'Ouverture or Booker Washington. ...

Then there are all the grades of color between the black and the red (so called, although any ruddy tinge is difficult to discover in the Indian). There is the light yellow grading to dark yellow of China and Japan, the seal brown of Java, the dun brown of the New Hebrides, the ècru of Hawaii; to all of them different degrees of antipathy are manifested on the part of the fair haired and blue eyed races

And it wasn''t intelligence either that divided the races:

This antipathy cannot be laid to the intellectual inferiority of these races. Japan and China have their full proportion of intellectual giants and near-giants. Their civilization, though of a different kind, is as high as ours, and their art in some respects is superior.

"Wherein, then," Clark inquired, "does the antipathy lie?"

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Maybe, he surmised, it is rooted in fear.

Clark lived between 1851 and 1927, and in his lifetime, he saw the fall of slavery, the beginnings of institutional racism, and multiple waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia. The melting pot was simmering, boiling even, upsetting up old power divisions and altering the American landscape. Clark understood what this change meant and surmised a more reasonable explanation for prejudice. Rather than physicality, hate stemmed from "an innate fear of the final domination of the whites by the colored." 

One example he found to support this notion was the divide between whites and Asians on the West Coast:
The California fruit grower discovers that the Japanese fruit grower is smarter than he is; and he camouflages his objection with the statement that 'the Oriental will lower the scale of American living.' The white American laborer sees the Chinese laundryman working twelve hours a day, burning the midnight oil, and rejoicing in the opportunity, while he desires chiefly to scamp his own eight hour day, work as little as possible, and get, but not earn, his five dollar bill at the end of it. Of course, he objects to 'cheap yellow labor.' ...

It would seem that most national antipathies are the result of fear, conscious or unconscious, that some race or nation will get the better of us.
This was the same sentiment hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan adopted: as disenfranchised, poor whites struggling to hold on to a sense of superiority, they were seeking an enemy, an explanation for their failings. It also was the bias apparent in American gentiles' distrust of American Jews. Clark wrote, "As we read the signs on Broadway, and see that the Cohens and the Solomon Levis have crowded out Smith, Brown, and Jones, we ask ourselves, 'Is America to become a commercial Jewry?'"

Although some of his examples might seem jarringly out of date, Clark's point is very much in keeping with evolutionary psychology. In a 1999 paper, Marilynn B. Brewer, a professor of social psychology at Ohio State University, explains that the human us-versus-them mentality is a product of adaptation. For members of a tightly knit group, reaching out to the "other" demands an organized effort -- and a calculated risk. As Brewer writes, "The decision to cooperate (to expend resources to another's benefit) is a dilemma of trust since the ultimate benefits depend on everyone else's willingness to do the same."

Clark expressed this idea bluntly, using language that would make the modern reader bristle. (He lamented, for instance, that the average American Indian preferred "his tepee, his lousy blanket, and his witch doctors to a university education.") But his basic question -- why couldn't we all just get along? -- was actually a progressive one for his time. In 1921, only an American would have dared suggest that new immigrants should be able to coexist peacefully with the descendants of slaves, native tribes, and blue-blooded Europeans. And in the end, Clark concluded that antipathies are based in our own insecurities rather the physical makeup of others.

Read the whole "Our Dearest Antipathies"