(No) Scientific Basis for Racism


Was it Ferguson that started it? Then Baltimore. Then Charleston…

Well, no. Racism has been around for a very long time. It’s just become an explosive media topic recently.

I’ve written about my own experiences with racism, explored nonviolence in jail and learned that through the lens of emotion, we are all the same, and let Jon Stewart speak for me on Charleston, but this issue has become so prevalent that it’s time to figure out effective solutions and implement them. First, let’s recap.

Racism is about fear masquerading as insecurity, anger, and territoriality. It’s about identity. It’s about hate. It’s about “the other.”

Despite the fact that Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown, will not be going to jail because the Justice Department can’t prove racism was the motivation, the laundry list of systemic racist acts against African-Americans in Ferguson is downright disgusting.

The Baltimore riots brought to the forefront the long and horrific history of racism there, highlighting the poverty and segregation that stifles black residents, especially youth.

Then we woke up to the shocking murder of nine black people at the hands of 21-year-old (and white) Dylann Roof in Charleston. As if we could handle any more of this collective pain and the historic symbolism that reminds us of white supremacy.

Racist violence, or what’s being called ‘racial terrorism’ in the case of Dylann Roof, isn’t the only type of explosion happening in the media. We have become so sensitive to the issue that every event perceived as a violation of racial identity receives a massive backlash. The classic example is Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identifies as black and has the whole country in an uproar. When I first heard about her, I realized that for whatever reason, she is choosing to deny her racial identity and adopt another. There must be trauma, I thought, and recent news suggests there was.

What’s interesting is not only that Ms. Dolezal identifies as transracial, but she is attempting to transcend the trauma of her childhood and adopt an identity based on values, not skin color or racial heredity. Is that so terrible, if she is (1) able to feel more confident in who she is, and (2) better able to help the black community? Who gets to decide? The more important question, to me, is this: Is identity, in fact, malleable and flexible? Can we identify as we choose? Or must we be put into boxes based on stereotypes, as in the film “Black and White” starring Kevin Costner? Watch the movie, read the scathing Forbes review and decide for yourself.

What is to be done about this situation? I grew up in a diverse community and attended an international high school where thirty-three nationalities represented. Diversity was like breathing air that was everywhere. When I don’t see people who are different from me, I feel that something is wrong.

I learned empathy, compassion, tolerance, and love for diversity as a child. I was fortunate. Many of us aren’t.

We can look to science for answers. Although “diversity” is used describing the many cultures of our world, it seems we often concentrate on a range of differences rather than similarities. There is not one trait, gene, or characteristic that distinguishes all members of one race from all members of another race. If you map any number of traits, none would match the accepted idea of race, because modern humans haven’t been around long enough to evolve into different subspecies and we’ve most often have moved, mated, and mixed our genes. Beneath the skin, we are one of the most genetically similar of all species. In fact, research shows that, based on DNA analyses, ALL MEN descended from a common ancestor, the so-called “genetic Adam.” The only exception is an African-American man from South Carolina called Albert Perry, and his DNA suggests interbreeding between archaic and modern humans. Yes, humans. It’s who we all are.

Population geneticist Spencer Wells, a former fellow Stanford scholar who went on to write The Journey of Man, now heads the famous Genographic Project, which aims to trace the Y-chromosome and ancestral human migration out of Africa. His work beautifully highlights the fact that our DNA is a thread connecting all people around the world through history.

With this scientific evidence in mind, we can and should look for those golden threads that weave us all together, those attributes that make us similar, such as our physiology, our emotions, and our needs for acceptance, belonging, love, and happiness, rather than those that we have used so often to segregate and divide, such as skin color, religion, and race.

There are science-based tools that can help us achieve harmony and celebrate diversity. We can turn police officers into “peace officers”. Those tools include mindfulness meditation, creative approaches to behavior change using design thinking and biomimicry, and above all, leadership through integrity – finding our own identity and being true to it, without needing to negate or put down how anyone else identifies.

These tools are transformative and they offer win-win solutions, but the seed of change is, simply, love. Can we love ourselves? Can we love our traumas? Can we embrace our imperfections, mistakes, and flaws? Can we reflect on our choices and make more constructive ones? Can we be mindful of our habitual thoughts, and think better ones? I witnessed incarcerated men doing all of this in the San Francisco County Jail, and was floored by their wisdom, presence, and charisma. Change happens when we go to the root of the issue. What do we fear? How might we transform that fear into love?

Racism harms us all, and ignores the scientific basis for how interconnected we all are through our DNA.

Racism harms us all, and ignores the scientific basis for how interconnected we all are through our DNA.

 * Sundarajan Mutialu, the inimitable (a)visionary at Alchemus Prime, made important contributions to this post.

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