It's not just in our heads: What 'Deep Diversity' gets wrong about racism

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There is an important difference between bias and discrimination

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Enslaved Africans, some have reported, reached the shores of what is now the United States to be greeted by welcome signs. White settlers were not consumed by hatred towards them -- they were too preoccupied by the urgent need for labour. It was that need which fuelled the slave trade.

Slavery ended, ultimately, because the enslaved "poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, 'accidentally' burned down buildings, and ran away in such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate economy."

Slavery ended, also, because the price of cotton fluctuated dramatically enough that one of its main buyers, the British, took its business elsewhere.

Whites enslaved -- and ceased enslaving -- Black people because there were tangible incentives for doing so. Racism, therefore, is the structure built by innumerable actions. It isn't something people believe in, which in turn inspires actions, but rather what we come to tell ourselves in order to justify our interests.

Some, however, would argue that these racist interactions and structures arise out of the inner workings of the human mind. This is the thesis of a new book, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them by Shakil Choudhury. "Our core struggles regarding Us versus Them lie hidden in the architecture of our brains," Choudhury writes. "It turns out that we are biologically predisposed to bias and discrimination."

Rather than going down the rabbit hole of biological essentialism, we should wonder if there's an important difference between bias and discrimination, on the one hand, and a system of racism, with all that that means. I believe there is. And I believe it's more than a difference of degree.

Choudhury's book details a number of experiments and real-life examples revealing the disheartening extent of racism.

There's the example, for one, of people -- of all races -- preferring to work with white racists than Black victims of racism, despite knowing nothing of either. Not a single one of the subjects who witnessed the instance of racism intervened, nor reported being upset about it later, and a majority of them still chose the racist as a project partner.

Experiments like these abound in the book. Many of them convincingly expose the manifestations of racism in our interpersonal relations.

What the book leaves out, however, is any recognition of the broader social world.

These experiments and examples, according to Choudhury, prove that racism emerges from the structure of the mind. However, there isn't an acknowledgement that, perhaps, the structure of the human mind is itself shaped by a global system formed by racism. There isn't an acknowledgement that marshalling these experiments might do more to conceal, rather than reveal, the roots of racist thinking. They only tell us, that is, that there is an urge to believe racism is "natural."

But it isn't. Racism is a response to incentives.

There was a time when Black lives, for instance, were protected because their labour was needed. When labour redundancy, in the context of globalization and the outsourcing of jobs, deepened, Black bodies became a threat. Hence mass imprisonment. And hence police killing Black people at unprecedented rates.

Racist thinking has grown because it's keeping pace with a runaway racist system.

And so Choudhury's solutions turn to individual efforts to change one's mind. "Just as muscle mass can increase through physical workouts," he writes, "we can grow parts of our brain, allowing us to form new habits and shift our perspectives in the ongoing task of increasing racial harmony."

This seems uncontroversial, and some might argue that we shouldn't get into a chicken and egg dilemma, but this approach gets it wrong. It focuses on the individual. It fails to recognize that we are the products of something outside of us -- that the human mind is woven together with others' and is influenced by systems of indoctrination.

Walter Rodney wrote of this in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. He detailed the exploitation of African workers at the hands of Western capitalists and pointed out that European workers, also, gained from their exploitation. European workers, who should instead have been in solidarity with Africans, didn't get "material benefits which accrued to them as crumbs from the colonial table" because of faulty psychological processes. They weren't simply biased and discriminatory. They were living under a system which thrived off of gutting Africa and needed European workers, who could potentially become allies in opposition, to tacitly accept it. Once that was fixed, racism followed. It didn't lead nor inspire the system's creation.

The failure to see that racism is a coping mechanism and a wage undeservedly paid to some is critical.

It means that Choudhury's solutions are irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. It puts the cart before the horse. It fails to recognize an important truth -- that, as Marx said, "Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life."

In doing so, it distracts us from the true source of our problem, keeps us wrapped up in our own minds, and ensures that no real action is taken.


Daniel Tseghay is a writer of Eritrean descent living in Vancouver.

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