Carefully Taught: Racism is Learned, not Natural

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear.
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year.
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear, little ear
.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Oscar Hammerstein II, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”

Life is serendipitous sometimes. I had been planning to write this blog today, quoting the Hammerstein song above. Then NPR’s “The Race Card Project” did a story on it on Monday. You can listen to it here.

It’s interesting that a 65-year-old song can still be so relevant. As I wrote a few weeks ago (and as the much more eloquent Leonard Pitts has written frequently), we do not yet live in a post-racist society, no matter how much we wish or believe it to be so.

And that prompts the question of where do racism and bigotry begin. It’s tempting to blame biology. Humans are a xenophobic species. We fear The Other. That’s millions of years of evolution for you.

But racism and bigotry are about more than xenophobia. They are also about holding onto power. The people who fight change the hardest are the ones who stand to lose something in the new order. That has an evolutionary origin too. Resources have to be protected so one’s tribe/community can survive. War began as a quest to take or protect resources.

But even that isn’t enough to really explain racism. Because whatever evolutionary urges may seed bigotry, there is something fundamentally advanced  about racism.

And that is hatred.

Racists do not just seek to just protect themselves from The Other. They hate them. Passionately. They desire their eradication — from their lives, from their neighborhoods, from their country, and even from the Earth. Hitler’s Final Solution was extreme, but it was born from the basic hatred of people different from him.

Hatred is not a natural emotion. It has to be learned.  That’s where Oscar Hammerstein got it right. Someone has to teach you whom to hate and why.

RAW Cover lo-resI explore this idea in my new novel, Roses Are White. Yes, it’s an action-adventure book. It’s not a treatise on racism or religion or nationalism or any other divisive force in the world today. It’s a page-turning thriller.

But villains need motives. All people do. And tragedy is wrought by hatred and stupidity.

One of the antagonists in the book is Gavric Hollygrove — a young, idealistic elf. He’s upset, because his sister is marrying a human. He believes, as many elves do, that humans are occupying their country and exploiting it for its resources.

But Gavric is becoming radicalized by a different force. As angry as he is about what his sister is doing, he is getting his ideas from another source. Mother Gladheart, a rogue priest, is inciting hatred and even violence against humans. It’s institutionalized racism.

In one passage, Gladheart sends a proclamation to be read by her spokesman at a rally:

“Good people of Alfar . . . Hear the words of your mother!

I have called you here today at the doorstep of the snavrek headquarters because it is time again to agitate for an end to their presence in Alfar.”

Cyrus swore a second time as the crowd cheered. Gladheart’s use of that hateful slur was not going to make anything better. For a woman of God, she certainly preached a lot of spite.

Gladheart goes on to blame all  the problems plaguing the nation on humans. Later in the book, we see the impact her ideas are having on Gavric:

How had this happened, [Gavric thought.] How had his homeland fallen so far from the ideals on which it was founded? . . . And how had his father and sister — the two people he admired most — lost sight of what was important, what Alfar meant? The two of them seemed determined to follow the president down her road of self-destruction, giving everything away to the [humans].

A few paragraphs later, wondering how his sister could be marrying a human, he refers to her intended as “her pet snavrek.

Gavric has learned to hate humans, but it wasn’t his family or any direct experiences with them that taught him that. Seeing something wrong with his country, he seeks out an explanation — and he gets it from someone who wants him to hate. Mother Gladheart names a scapegoat (humans), labels them with an ugly word to make them lesser (snavrek), and then issues a call to action, which ends up inciting violence and more hatred.

That is the power of racism. It changes The Other — whoever they are — into The Enemy. Enemies are hated. They are treated as subhuman, as scourges that must be destroyed.

It’s easy enough to dismiss my argument because Roses Are White is a work of fiction. There are no elves in real life. They are not exploited for their magic.

But the process by which Gavric becomes radicalized is the same one we see at work in the real world. Islamic fundamentalists claim Western culture is sinful and organize jihads against the U.S. and its allies. The 9/11 attacks were an act of hatred perpetrated by anti-Western bigots.

Likewise, Westboro Baptist Church teaches hatred of homosexuals, blaming them and America’s tolerance of the so-called “gay agenda” for everything wrong with the country because in their view God is punishing us.

These children have been carefully taught to hate.

These children have been carefully taught to hate.

And the sinister thing about these ideas is that they are taught. Osama bin Laden didn’t fly a plane into the World Trade Center. He convinced someone else to do it, telling them they were fighting evil and that God would reward them in the afterlife. Fred Phelps taught his congregation his twisted interpretation of Leviticus, and they have instilled it in their kids. Among the most disturbing images of Westboro’s activities is seeing young children holding up signs that read, “God Hates Fags,” and other hateful slurs at military funerals.

Of course, those are extreme examples, but it’s a short step from hatred to extremism. Teaching that The Other is The Enemy is what led George Zimmerman to identify Trayvon Martin as a threat to the neighborhood because he was a black kid wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman acted on his suspicion born of hatred and ended up authoring an unintended tragedy.

There was a national outrage over Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman shouting into the microphone that he’d proven he was the better player than San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree after Sherman deflected away a pass intended for Crabtree and sealed a trip to the Super Bowl for Seattle. Sherman was declared a thug. He responded by saying “thug” was the new code word for the n-word. Nationally, we scoffed.

But just over a year before, Michael Dunn, a white man, shot at three black kids, killing one of them for playing their music too loud at a gas station. “I hate that thug music,” he said of the rap/hip-hop they had on the radio.

Doesn’t that at least lend some credence to Sherman’s point? And was Sherman’s exuberant interview any different than Muhammed Ali declaring, “I am the greatest!” And wasn’t Ali hated for it, because he was a black man dominating a then-traditionally white sport?

To some, the black man is the enemy — The Other to be feared and hated. When he wins, those who hate him are not only threatened, they’re angry.

And this attitude, this belief in the danger of The Other, is taught. Someone in authority — a politician, a cleric, a parent — teaches that not all people are created equal. Some people are bad, and they are bad because they belong to a particular group. They believe in the wrong god, or they follow the wrong ideology, or their skin is the wrong color, or they have more or less than we do. So they are The Enemy. They are different from us, and their very nature — from belief system to skin color to sexual identity — is fundamentally wrong. It is evil. They are evil.

That is racism, and we come to it by education. We are carefully taught. I may have written a work of fantasy fiction, but I’m not writing about imaginary problems.

Put a couple of very young children together, and they will ask questions. Why is your skin like that? Why is your hair like that? Why don’t you look like me? Why do you do that?

It sounds wrong, and parents often freak when a seemingly impolitic question comes of our their child’s mouth. But the thing is children don’t ask those questions because they are racist. They ask because they are trying to figure out the world. When they meet someone different, they are curious.

Thus, the answers matter. What we tell children, what we allow them to learn, is what they come to believe.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

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