August 2016 | last updated May 2017
9,500 words | 40 minutes
Q: How come there’s so much ‘racism’ around?
A: It’s genetic. Possibly. Colonial history, pseudo-scientific racism, mass migration and conservative Islam don’t help.
Or…skip to the Conclusion
Colour me racist – blame my genes
An opinion peice with added facts, photos and handy links in which I, as an anti-racist white liberal:
🔸admit to (unwanted) racist feelings and suggest that we’re all racist
🔸address black on black colour prejudice
🔸suggest that racism might be innate
🔸explain how ‘scientific’ racism is rubbish but was used to justify the slave trade and the Holocaust
🔸suggest that mass immigration and conservative Islam have provoked innate racism in the UK and Europe
🔸conclude that if we acknowledge and address evolved prejudice, humanist goodness can prevail
‘Provocative and highly speculative…I fundamentally disagree’
Professor Ian Law, University of Leeds
‘I remain unconvinced’
Dr Marcel Stoetzler, Bangor University
‘We agree more than disagree’
Professor Steven Neuberg, Arizona State University
Professor Zahia Smail Salhi, University of Manchester
‘Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that racism is built on [evolved] intergroup bias‘
Professor Melissa McDonald, Oakland University
‘Great blog post…really interesting!’
Marissa Lithopoulos, University of Ottawa
‘Some profound thoughts…There might be a heritable tendency to be wary of the unfamiliar’
Professor Frances Aboud, McGill University
‘Interesting..takes up issues in new directions’
Dr Hauwa Mahdi, University of Gothenburg
‘Insightful and thought-provoking’
Ayesha Tarannum, Muslim Council of Britain
‘Interesting…relevant to the ongoing discussion about British values’
Errol Barnett, Integration & Faith Division, Department for Communities and Local Government, UK government
Mark Gardner, Community Security Trust
Shadism – black on black colour prejudice
A gene for racism?
Mass immigration to the UK
Conservative Islam in the UK
– Attitude towards Islamist terrorism
– Criticism of Muslims – Islamaphobia?
East European immigration to the UK
Recent mass migration to western Europe
Conclusion – good gene v bad gene?
Once upon a time, dear reader, we were animals. (We still are, of course, but you know what I mean.) Then we evolved into humans, with big brains. Then things got complicated. Take racism, for example…
There’s no such thing as ‘race’, right? It’s a fake category. So-called ‘racial’ differences are superficial. Everyone with half a (big) brain knows that. So how come there’s so much ‘racism’ around? It’s a big question. This post is my answer.
I’m sorry to say that I’m racist. I don’t want to be, and I don’t believe there’s any justification for it, but I have racist feelings. I don’t think it’s just me. I think that probably we’re all racist. We white liberals rightly resist it or understandably deny it – but it’s still there. An irrational suspicion of strangers, especially dark-skinned strangers, persists – and has been intensified in the west by recent circumstances and pressures.
Part of it is colour prejudice, a phrase that’s fallen out of fashion, having been replaced by the blander catch-all, ‘racism’. But colour prejudice, now known as ‘colourism‘, is still a real thing.
Racism and colourism are rubbish – so why do they persist? One clue might be shadism.
Shadism – black on black colour prejudice
Liberal idealists might be surprised and dismayed (I know I was) to learn that there’s a strong undercurrent of colourism amongst people with brown or black skin. In this semi-secret culture of prejudice, known as ‘shadism‘, lighter skin is considered good, and darker skin is considered bad.
‘Black is beautiful‘, said African American freedom fighters in the 1960s. ‘Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud‘ sang James Brown. But, sadly, the continuing sales of skin-lightening products in Africa and America sing a different tune.
The global skin lightening market is worth over $100bn a year. The biggest market is south Asia (the geographically vague but politically correct UK name for the Indian subcontinent – see my post, Asian, Indian, Pakistani) and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the south Asian diaspora.
South Asian shadism is often mixed with prejudice based on class, caste or region, but there’s also shadism within such groups. There’s almost an obsession with people’s skin tone. For instance, someone with a lighter skin will typically be considered a better marriage prospect than someone with darker skin. Encouraged by adverts featuring Bollywood stars, many south Asians – mainly women – use skin lightening products.
Finding out about shadism, and reflecting on my own unwanted racist feelings made me wonder: might there be a gene for racism and colourism?
(After writing this post as a speculative piece, I discovered that there’s evidence for evolved group prejudice, of which racism might be a modern version; and for unconscious colour prejudice which might be innate. See postscript 2. Anyway…)
A gene for racism?
The conventional explanation for racism is the horrible history of subjugation and colonialism.
Ingrained, collective post-colonial delusions of superiority might partly explain white-on-black racism, including mine – but perhaps that isn’t the whole story.
Similarly, black-on-black (and brown-on-brown) shadism might be partly explained by a mass inferiority complex (or internalised racism) caused by the historical domination for several millenia of much of India and Africa by light-skinned middle-eastern and European invaders; and, in the case of African Americans, by the terrible legacy of slavery – but there might be more to it.
Can history really be the only explanation? Perhaps there’s something wider, deeper and older going on. Is there a nasty gene for colourism and racism lurking in our ancestral woodshed? If so, what could have been its – probably pre-human and now redundant – survival value? Could such a gene be the cause of modern racism?
Some scientists dismiss the idea of a gene for racism, but their dismissal seems to be a horrified denial rather than an evidence-based conclusion. Our genes haven’t been fully decoded yet, and perhaps never will be. A racist gene can’t be ruled out – except by wishful thinking.
Racism is usually considered to be a belief. But what if it’s actually an instinct? There’s good reason to think of racism as an evolved instinct: it’s widespread (probably universal), destructive and irrational.
The attempt to rationalise and dignify racism with ideology and ‘science’ is pure bollocks. It’s like a drunk trying to act sober.
Taxonomically, all humans are Homo sapiens sapiens, the only surviving subspecies of the species Homo sapiens (the only surviving species of the genus Homo). In biology, race is an informal rank below the level of subspecies, the members of which are significantly distinct from other members of the subspecies.
‘Scientific’ racism is based on the obnoxious idea that the different human populations are races in a hierarchy of superiority. However, interpreters of genetic research have confirmed the obvious: the different human populations are not races in any scientifically meaningful sense – they’re just people with superficial evolved differences from one another.
The superficial differences may have health implications. Some genetic disorders, known as single gene disorders, are associated with particular populations. For instance, cystic fibrosis is most common among people of north European heritage.
The differences are useful to the police when describing suspects. The UK police identification categories are:
IC1: White/north European
IC2: Mediterranean/south European
IC4: South Asian
IC5: Chinese/Japanese/other south-east Asian
IC6: Arabic/north African
However, the superficial differences can also be abused by the police. For instance racial profiling, exemplified by the notoriously biased ‘stop and search‘ practices of the UK police, especially in London, is clearly more controversial and problematic. (The UK inquiry into police mishandling of the racist murder of black Briton Stephen Lawrence famously concluded that the London Metropolitan police force was institutionally racist.)
The superficial differences also feature in the complex self-declared ethnic categories used for the census and for discrimination monitoring. Ethnicity is clearly related to ‘race’, but it’s relatively non-toxic. It’s used mainly to implement anti-discrimination practices and to support ideas of multiculturalism.
The concept of ethicity allows people to identify themselves as, for instance, black British or Asian British, thereby voicing their own feelings about who they are in positive terms which include family origins, the colour of their skin, their nationality and their cultural allegiances.
So the superficial genetic variations found in different human populations may have health implications, may be used to describe you, may be used to discriminate against you, or may be part of your positive self-identity – but they’re biologically insignificant.
There are no different races – we’re all just human. As one-man melting pot Michael Jackson sang, ‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white‘. It doesn’t matter biologically, that is. Obviously, if you’re black, it currently matters in other ways (unless, perhaps, you have the elite status of a Michael Jackson).
So we now know better – but a few hundred years ago, pseudo-scientific racist ideology was all the rage. An early example of bad science, it was used to justify two of the worst things in human history: the slave trade and the Holocaust.
Ideological racism started when 18th-century European philosophers, claiming a scientific basis for ‘race’, defamed non-white populations as inferior, thereby providing intellectual justification for the racist brutality of empire – including four hundred years of the slave trade.
The misery of slavery has, of course, existed in nearly every culture, nationality, and religion from ancient times to the present day – with or without any ‘justification’. Estimates of the number of slaves today range from 21 to 46 million. Perhaps this shows that humans have an innate capacity to see certain ‘categories’ of our fellow humans as ‘other‘.
Thought to be rare amongst hunter-gatherer populations, slavery really took off after the invention of agriculture about 11,000 years ago. In more recent historical times, the much-romanticised Anglo-Saxon age in Britain saw the widespread practice of chattel slavery.
(William the Conqueror, who subjugated Britain after the invasion of 1066, is rightly hated for his legacy of land-grabbing aristocracy – see my post, Law and order – but he did at least one good thing: he ended chattel slavery.)
Four hundred years later, European colonialists reinvented slavery. Bolstered by ideological racism, they created the slave trade, and instituted a new level of organised vicious inhumanity.
The legacy of slavery is still an ugly scar on America the Beautiful. Fifty years on from the achievements of the civil rights movement, African Americans continue to face systemic discrimination and prejudice.
There’s been anti-Jewish racism for many centuries. For instance in Germany high-profile 16th-century Christianity reformer Martin Luther publicly recommended the burning of synagogues. Luther’s beef with Judaism was supposedly theological; but his bitter hatred betrays something less ethereal.
(Ironically, Luther’s modern namesake, assasinated black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, publicly spoke out against black anti-Judaism, acknowledged Jewish participation in the civil rights movement, and actively supported the state of Israel.)
Encouraged by Luther’s widely disseminated anti-Jewish rhetoric, 19th-century German ‘race’ theorists and philosophers such as Nietzsche ramped up the anti-Judaism. (Those 19th-century German ‘race’ theorists invented the pseudo-scientific word ‘antisemitic’. See my post on that ridiculous word for a tragic phenomenon, Antisemitism – anti-what??)
We all know how that ended in Nazi Germany in the 1930s: Hollocaust, the ‘final solution’. State insanity, boosted by the writings of Luther and Nietzsche and by racist, pseudo-scientific US eugenics programmes funded by Carnegie, Rockefeller and Kellogg, resulted in genocide, carried out by ordinary people in thrall to authority. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment shows how ordinary people can do that. Perhap the Hollocaust executioners, besides acting in blind obediance to a ‘scientifically’ racist authority, were also indulging an instinctive racist urge.
So, is there a gene for racism? Ideological, ‘scientific’ racism is now known to be rubbish – but the legacy of the slave trade and the Hollocaust continues to grow and spread, perhaps feeding on an instinctive drive. We now know that there’s no such thing as ‘race’, but racism persists.
The name’s wrong, but the thing is real – real but wrong. I’m disgusted – perhaps with ‘presentist‘ hindsight – by my slave-trading, Jew-hating European forbears. Like Roy Harper, in that context I hate the white man and his plastic excuse – but I also blame the genes.
Mass immigration to the UK
Theres not much racism in the UK, though, is there? We might have been brutal in the empire and in Ireland, but back home, on the whole, we’re a welcoming, tolerant country, aren’t we? Well, not really. Our mainly dormant – possibly innate – racism has been triggered by mass immmigration.
There have, of course, been invasions and migrations of people from far and wide into Britain for millenia (including, briefly, black Roman soldiers and their families). We’re a mongrel nation. Since the last succesful invasion in 1066, we English have been mainly Anglo-Saxon (English-speaking German) peasants with a French-Norman (French-speaking Scandinavian) ruling class, with some Britons and Vikings. People from all over the world continued to migrate here from time to time – but mass immigration is a recent phenomenon.
It began in the 1950s after World War Two when a paternalistic UK government, without consulting the people, encouraged large-scale immigration from some countries in the Commonwealth (a voluntary association of former UK colonies). Most of the immigrants came from south Asia or the Caribbean. In the 1960s large numbers of south Asian people who’d been living in former east African colonies were forced out, and were allowed to come to the UK.
Consequently, ever since, there’s been an undercurrent of grumbling, semi-coherent resentment amongst the indigenous UK population, disconcerted by the sudden presence of large numbers of dark-skinnned foreigners – with, in the case of those from India and Pakistan, foreign languages and religions.
In the 1950s there was also large-scale immigration from Ireland. Many Irish immigrants experienced racism (if not colourism). Signs in lodging house windows are supposed – perhaps apocryphally – to have read, ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs‘.
The 1950s immigrants were – supposedly – needed to meet the labour requirements of postwar reconstruction by working in the newly created National Health Service and nationalised public utilities, such as London transport. The 1950s and 60s saw a very low rate of unemployment as a result of the postwar ‘boom’. These factors probably mitigated the resentment, but it certainly existed – and, sadly, still does, especially in the older generation.
Most indigenous UK whites aren’t willfully or consciously racist. When they got to know the foreigners, they liked them. Openly racist groups emerged, but have never had much support. The term ‘darkies‘, common then but now rightly banished (although apparently in current use in the world of shadism), was crude and insensitive, but not necessarily unfriendly.
However, the lurking resentment and open racism resulted in tighter immigration controls and occasional outbursts, like the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, and Conservative shadow (opposition party) minister Enoch Powell‘s infamous 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech criticising Commonwealth immigration and anti-discrimination law.
An over-educated racist twat, Powell quoted a Latin poet who foresaw the River Tiber foaming with blood. Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet. His political career was effectively over, and he sank into richly deserved obscurity. But he’d touched a nerve. London dock workers went on strike to support him. (The dockers had form – in the 1930s, many of them marched with Oswald Mosley‘s fascist Blackshirts.)
Powell was wrong, of course – there’s been no foaming of blood in the UK. Instead, most citizens have accepted a pragmatic mixture of multiculturalism and integration. We hippies imagined all the people living life in peace in a great big melting pot. (We overlooked Lennon’s hypocrisy and Melting Pot’s dodgy lyrics.)
Happily, that’s more or less how it’s been. Twenty-something ‘Millennials‘ are far less racist and colourist than previous generations. However, the postwar racist undercurrent persists. Britons with African-Caribbean and south Asian
heritage (now comprising about ten percent of the UK population) continue to face prejudice and discrimination, institutional and otherwise.
And there has been some conflict. Currently, it’s between some UK Muslims and, er, the UK.
Conservative Islam in the UK
There are two main sources of racism-provoking conflict between some UK Muslims and the host community: segregation and attitude towards Islamist terrorism, both deriving from Saudi-exported conservative Islam. A further source of conflict is that when Muslims are criticised with regard to these issues, representatives describe the criticism as Islamaphobia.
The first source of conflict is that over the last 20-30 years many UK Muslims have become increasingly self-segregated.
Most Commonwealth immigrants have integrated naturally, whilst keeping their languages, traditions and religions – by just living here. However, many Muslims, having originally done that, began in the 1980s and 90s to segregate themselves in accordance with the Sunni-based strict Wahabi/Salafi interpretation of Islam fostered by a multi-billion-dollar Saudi Arabian programme of investment in mosques, faith schools and religious teachers in the UK and elsewhere.
Conservative Islamic teachers exported to the UK as part of this programme have been criticised for their illiberal views, especially on homosexuality and women’s equality.
For instance, in 2016 a UK Islamic faith school lost its appeal against education watchdog Ofsted, which placed the school in special measures because it had library books which said that a wife can’t refuse sex and that a husband can beat his wife if it’s not done ‘harshly’. The judge said that the books contained views inimical to fundamental British values.
(My post, Patriotism – for scoundrels addresses the UK policy of trying to encourage integration by teaching ‘British values‘ in schools. See also my liberal critique of Islam in the UK, Fear of Islamaphobia.)
Changes in clothing are an obvious sign of the Saudi influence. In the 1970s, UK Muslim women (mostly of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin) generally wore either a shalwar kameez (a traditional outfit originating in the Punjab region, now popular throughout the Indian subcontinent) or western clothes, sometimes with a loose headscarf. Muslim men wore mainly western clothes.
Now, many UK Muslim women wear an Arabic black full-length shapeless robe with a tight nun-like headscarf. Some wear an eye-slit niqab. Some now also wear black gloves, year-round. None of these are prescribed by the Quran, which merely advised women to dress more modestly than was the custom at the time, by covering their bosoms with their headscarves, and by not dressing in a way which flaunted their bodies.
The Arabic word ‘hijab‘ is now often used by UK Muslims to describe headscarves worn by Muslim women; and ‘Hijabi‘ is often used to describe the wearer. The frequent use of this Arabic word might be thought to imply a Quranic derivation, but the word is only used in the Quran in another sense, meaning a partition or curtain.
Most UK Muslim men continue to wear western clothes. Some now wear a traditional longer men’s version of a shalwar kameez; and some now wear a long Arabic robe-like ‘thobe‘ (or ‘thaube’), usually white, especially on Fridays for the mosque visit.
The wearing in the UK of the controversial Saudi niqab (another Arabic word not in the Quran), which is banned in some European countries, provokes criticism and, unfortunately, racism. It creates an impression of deliberate separation, nicely symbolising the current tendency for some Muslims living in the west to segregate themselves.
A 2016 UK government report confirmed that segregation is at worrying levels. The report focused on the effect of segregation on Muslim women and children. It said that many women are denied their basic rights as British residents, have poor English language skills, and experience economic inactivity, coercive control, violence, and criminal acts of abuse, often enacted in the name of cultural or religious values.
The report said that children are often excluded from mainstream education, are segregated from wider British communities, and lack sufficient checks on their wellbeing and integration. The report blamed cultural misogyny and patriarchy. It also blamed the public bodies which currently ignore or condone divisive religious practices for fear of being called racist or Islamophobic.
The report had a mixed response from Muslim groups. The chief executive of the Muslim Women’s Council said, ‘I am not denying that there is a problem in Muslim communities, but I would not put it down to self-segregation. We have to look at the broader picture, at education qualifications, at economics, at social mobility, at barriers in the jobs market.’
The secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain said that any initiative that facilitates better integration of all Britons should be welcomed, but that the report was a missed opportunity. He said, ‘We need to improve integration, and it needs to involve the active participation of all Britons, not just Muslims’.
Sadly, such responses are typical of Muslims’ defensive response to criticism. The attempt to deflect criticism is misguided – there’s no need to ‘look at the broader picture’ or to have the ‘participation of all Britons’. What’s needed, especially for the sake of segregated Muslim women and children, is for Muslims who segregate themselves to stop doing it.
The 2016 report called for more English language classes for isolated groups. A 2017 report by a UK parliamentary group on social integration said that immigrants should have to either learn English before coming to the UK or attend classes when they arrive.
The parliamentary group said that integration should begin on arrival in the UK, and that speaking English is a prerequisite for meaningful engagement with British people. This would apply not only to Muslims but also to recent east European immigrants. (See below.)
There are other smaller UK religious groups that segregate themselves – for example, Haredi Jews. But conservative Muslims have a much higher and more provocative profile – partly because of Islamist terrorism.
Attitude towards Islamist terrorism
The other main source of racism-provoking conflict is some UK Muslims’ attitude towards the brutal sectarian and anti-western Islamist terrorism carried out by a very small minority of their co-religionists.
(How small is that minority? The Bipartisan Policy Center, a US think tank, estimates that there are about 100,000 active Islamist terrorists, worldwide. That’s 0.006 per cent of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims.)
The 2011 census showed 2.7 million Muslims living in the UK. UK security service MI5 has estimated that 3,000 people in Britain may pose a terrorist threat; and that more than 850 have travelled to territory in Syria and Iraq controlled by Islamist terror group Isis, some of whom may want to return to the UK as Isis suffers military reverses on the ground.
3,000 is a small percentage of 2.7 million (0.1), and 850 is a much smaller percentage (0.03), but that’s still a lot of people – and that doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from shockingly anti-western views fostered by Saudi extremists and, as revealed by opinion polls, held by a large minority of UK Muslims.
A 2006 social research study on British Muslim attitudes found that 30 per cent wanted to live under Sharia law, and 28 per cent wanted Britain to be an Islamic state. (Although Isis declared itself as the ‘Islamic State‘ in Syria in 2006, the 2006 social research question was referring to the general idea of an Islamic state.)
Most shockingly, 22 per cent of those surveyed thought that the 2005 7/7 London bombings (in which 52 people were killed and over 700 were injured) were justified because of British support for the war on terror.
At a conservative estimate, some 1.5 million people, mostly Muslims, have been killed during the war on terror, including an estimated 90,000 terrorists. Some five million people remain displaced. UK prime minister Tony Blair was widely criticised by UK citizens for giving military support for the Iraq and Afghan wars. The reasons given for the Iraq war were false. (See below.)
The war on terror, having started as an understandable act of retaliation, turned into a strategically incompetent neo-colonialist shambles, but this hardly justifies the mass murder of UK civilians, as one in five UK Muslims claimed.
A 2015 survey found that 20 per cent of British Muslims had some sympathy with those who’ve gone to fight in Syria. (The spin given to the results by the newspaper that commissioned the survey was controversial, and the survey was criticised for polling people with Muslim names living in mainly-Muslim areas, thereby, supposedly, targetting less well educated Muslims in ‘ghetto’ areas. However, the methodology seems to have been generally sound.)
Muslim representatives insist that the terrorism is unislamic. Denial material included with the homilies circulating amongst devout Muslims goes further, claiming that those involved are mentally unstable loners who aren’t practising Muslims, and therefore their acts of terror have no connection with Islam. The example is given of the Tunisian Nice truck attacker, a petty criminal who used alcohol and drugs. He killed and injured over 500 people.
The Nice attacker may be described by deniers as a non-Muslim, but, lapsed or not, he apparently considered himself to be a Muslim. The only known motive for his attack is that, according to Isis’s claim, he responded to their call for Muslims to target citizens of coalition nations fighting against the ‘Islamic State‘.
In any case, most western Islamist terrorists don’t fit that denial-friendly profile. Many UK Islamist terrorists are said to have been educated and apparently living a normal Muslim lifestyle.
The bland assertion that Islamist terrorism is unislamic doesn’t really help, given that, according to the 2006 and 2015 surveys, one in five UK Muslims thought that the 2005 7/7 terrorist attacks were justified and had sympathy with those who’d gone to fight in Syria.
Also, there’ve been no major public Muslim protests about the terrorist groups claiming to be Islamic. There’ve been large Muslim demonstrations against offensive cartoons, and there was strong Muslim participation in the huge demonstration against the Iraq war; but there have been no mainstream UK Muslim demonstrations against al-Qaeda or Isis. A small Shia demonstration against Isis had no support from the Sunni majority.
A headteacher friend told me that in her mainly-Muslim state primary school the day after the 2001 9/11 attacks, Muslim children were singing chants in favour of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After his death in 2011, hundreds of UK Muslims saw fit to demonstrate their support for Bin Laden.
In 2016 the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella body for mosques, schools and associations, finally launched its own programme to prevent young Muslims being radicalised. Better late than never, or too little too late? Take your pick.
Many Muslims subscribe to elaborate conspiracy theories which claim that supposedly Islamist terror acts were actually carried out by goverment agencies in order to discredit Islam. A 2016 opinion poll found that, astonishingly, 31 per cent of UK Muslims thought the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks, and only 4 per cent thought that al-Qaeda was responsible.
The poll was commissioned by controversial centre-right think tank Policy Exchange (which has been criticised for ‘demonising’ Muslims) but was carried out by a reputable polling organisation. Policy Exchange’s report had a forward by Muslim Labour MP and shadow minister Khalid Mahmood, in which he concluded that:
‘The readiness to believe in conspiracy theories and the mentality of victimhood of which it speaks…is holding [Muslims] back and ensuring that…we are locked in a paranoid and at times fearful world view… This report can contribute to the further integration of British Muslims.’ [My bolding]
Belief in such 9/11 conspiracy theories contributes to Muslim opposition to the ‘war on terror’. In his 2009 book Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, award-winning UK journalist David Aaronovitch pointed out that because a significant number of educated Pakistanis believe that George W Bush brought the towers down on 9/11, they don’t believe the fundamental premise on which the Afghan war on terror was waged – and, therefore, countering al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan is made even more difficult.
However, it should be said that the Iraq war was different, in that there was an actual conspiracy – a conspiracy by Bush and Blair to justify the war. The US Bush administration falsely claimed that agents of Saddam Hussein had met 9/11 al-Qaeda hijacker Mohammed Atta. To get ‘proof’, they tortured captured Islamists into ‘confessing’. UK premier Blair helped out by backing the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This shabby conspiracy and the consequent action and aftermath contributed – understandably – to Muslims’ strident opposition to the war on terror.
Criticism of Muslims – Islamaphobia?
When Muslims in the UK (and elsewhere in the west) are criticised for not integrating, or for not accepting any responsibility for the terrorism coming from within their religion, Muslim representatives react defensively, and describe the criticism as Islamaphobic persecution.
(For real persecution of a Muslim minority – and a modern example of bollocks racist ideology – check out the near-genocidal persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, previously known as Burma. The Myanmar government, currently fronted by formerly saintly Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is responsible for this crime. See my post, Halo Goodbye, Suu.)
There’s also a suggestion that critics of Islam are racist. As most UK Muslims are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, it’s possible that liberal critics of Islam in the UK are being – perhaps unintentionly – racist or colourist. It’s certain that many less-liberal indigenous UK citizens harbour racist Islamaphobic feelings about the Muslim community.
As a critic of conservative Islam who has already admitted to having racist feelings (albeit unwanted), perhaps I should examine my own attitude towards UK Muslims more closely at this point. I feel distaste and intolerance towards the aspects of UK Islam I’ve been criticising, but I don’t have racist feelings about Muslims in general.
Actually, my wife is a Muslim. Her family is of Pakistani origin, via east Africa. Fortunately for our marriage, although she’s a believer she’s not very religious – and neither are many of her extended family. We argue about how to load the dishwasher, but not about Islam. She wears western clothes day-to-day, and Pakistani clothes with a loose headscarf at formal family or cultural events. (I love my wife dearly. She wouldn’t like to be written about here, but she never reads my blog, so that’s OK.)
I mention my Pakistani Muslim wife and her family not to show how tolerant and liberal I am (I know that a relationship between a white man and a woman of colour can be considered suspect by those aware of inter-ethnic power dynamics), but to show that I realise from personal experience that to criticise conservative Islam is to generalise about a minority of Muslims.
Careless generalisation can be destructive, but accurate generalisation is an essential part of effective criticism. The conservative Muslim minority, being assertive and highly visible, provokes a degree of indiscriminate anti-Muslim racism in the host community; but generalised, informed criticism of that minority is not Islamaphobia – it’s tough love.
There are, of course, openly racist anti-Islamic groups throughout Europe trying to stoke fear of ‘Islamisation‘. There are good reasons to be concerned about subversive Islamisation, as the 2006 survey (above) shows, but organised anti-Islamic groups don’t have much support in the UK. At a 2016 high-profile election to replace a member of parliament, the two far-right candidates both got less than five per cent of the vote (meaning that they lost their £500 deposits).
After the horrors of 9/11, the 7/7 London bombings, the coordinated Paris and Brussells attacks, the ‘lone actor’ vehicle attacks throughout Europe, the 2017 Manchester bombing and the threats made by Isis, it’s natural to fear further Islamist atrocity. Research suggests (see postscript 2, below) that humans have evolved a tendency to stigmatise those seen as threatening their social group. No doubt the host community’s rational fear and instinctive response contribute, along with the issues of segregation and terrorism denial, to simmering anti-Muslim racism.
Some Muslim critics of conservative Islam call for reform, but that’s a double-edged sword. One edge is extremism. Salafism itself is a reformist movement; and those who hope for a Muslim version of the Christian Protestant Reformation should remember uber-reformer Martin Luther, who, although he started out well by opposing the corrupt Roman Catholic church and by translating the bible from Latin into German, became a zealous anti-Jewish extremist whose views later contributed to the Nazi Hollocaust.
The Reformation began 1500 years after the start of Christianity. Today, 1500 years after the start of Islam, perhaps a Muslim reformation is due. The Christian Reformation, despite its founder’s racist extremism, was mainly a Good Thing for society in general. It ended the political power of the church and paved the way for the ages of reason and enlightenment, leading to our modern secular liberal democracy. It was also, arguably, good for believers, insisting that the Bible is the only source of Christian authority, and that the church should be a community of the faithful rather than a hierarchical, priest-led structure. However, there was a massive amount of collateral damage over hundreds of years. If Islam is to reform itself, perhaps it could learn from Christianity’s mistakes.
In the meantime, the 2016 opinion poll mentioned above found that 53 per cent of UK Muslims want to integrate more. That majority needs to get a grip and kick out the Saudi conservatives; and all western Muslims need to lighten up. Keep the religion, if you want, but enjoy the western freedom – and the hard-won democracy (the worst form of government except for all the others – especially theocracy). As-salāmu ʿalaykum.
East European immigration to the UK
There’s now another semi-racist cause for resentment in the UK. Unrestricted immigration from relatively poor east European countries, allowed under the European Union’s freedom of movement rule, has resulted in over one million people recently moving to the UK. This has provoked resentment amongst the indigenous white working class. They resent the sudden appearance in their towns and cities of large numbers of strangers with foreign languages and shops.
There are rational concerns about the undercutting of wages, and about pressure on housing, education and healthcare – but, although there’s no colourism in this case, there’s clearly an element of white-on-white racism.
During the run-up to the recent UK referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union, such concerns were either ignored by the metrocentric mainstream media, or were described – and dismissed – as provincial racism. The dismissed views of the white working class are now known to have played a big part in the Leave result – a result which confounded the expectations of nearly all commentators and pollsters. (However, see my prophetic post, The east European elephant.)
Since the Brexit vote, there’s been a large increase in reported ‘hate’ crimes. The victims seem to have been anybody who might be an immigrant or from an immigrant community. The referendum result seems to have unleashed previously repressed anti-immigrant racism.
140,000 EU nationals successfully applied for UK residence in 2016, twice the number in 2015. It’s predicted that at least 500,000 more east Europeans will come to the UK over the next two years before we leave the EU. When we do, freedom of movement from the EU to the UK will probably end. EU nationals living here at that time will probably be allowed to stay – if they want to. Powodzenia z tym.
There’s even more.
Recent mass migration to western Europe
Large numbers of people have recently tried to enter Europe from Africa and west Asia. Some are refugees; some are economic migrants
Those coming from Africa foolishly pay relatively huge amounts of money to despicable people traffickers to get to Libya, then pay even more – and risk their lives – to try crossing the Mediterranean to Italy in overcrowded ricketty boats, hoping to get to Germany or Sweden.
By the end of November 2016, a record 170,000 people had arrived in Italy from north Africa since the start of the year. Similar numbers of people have been arriving for several years.
Many have died trying to cross the Mediterranean sea. The 2016 death toll is expected to exceed 10,000.
Those who make it and are allowed to stay, or manage to stay illegally, have been welcomed with compassion and sympathy by some, but face hostility and racism from others who fear job losses and terrorism.
The vast majority of refugees and migrants are Muslims. Recent Islamist terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Berlin were carried out by Muslim refugees or Muslim EU citizens, and exploited migrant routes and EU open borders.
A 2016 survey showed that most Europeans believe that the influx of refugees across the continent will mean less jobs and more terrorism.
The solution to economic migration, of course, is to make poverty history. The IMF and the World Bank should create social credit instead of debt and austerity.
(Imagine: no need for greed or hunger; a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world.)
Over 65 million people are currently displaced from their homes, and are living in camps. 65. Million. The war in Syria, which prompted the current refugee exodus, is made intractable by Putin’s Russia and western dithering. The Arab Spring attempt to sow democracy in place of dictatorship has gone backwards to a winter of discontent. The parasitic Isis, al-Qaeda and Taliban (and their Muslim warlord imitators) murder, rape, torture, enslave and displace civilians for God. Billions of aid dollars which could bring law and order disappear offshore.
The United Nations was well meant and can help refugees, but it can’t enforce peace. A world federation with teeth can replace the oligarchs and warlords, and bring peace – and prosperity.
(You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.)
As for the Islamist terrorism making European host populations wary of refugees and migrants, the solution (while we wait for world government) is for the threatened west to speed up the development of new technology that can end oil dependency, and then to sanction Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and cut off the terror funding and sponsorship.
The matching solution for the western Muslim anti-Islamist majority is to end dependence on Saudi money, remove the Saudi influence from mosques and schools, and put an end to the twisted fundamentalism that’s smeared their religion of peace.
(You may say I’m an Islamistaphobe – and you’d be right.)
Conclusion: good gene v bad gene?
Racism has been nicely defined as prejudice plus power (meaning institutional power, not personal power). Here in the largely white-run West, racism, and the power imbalance that defines it, persists.
There are no human races – just human populations with superficial differences (which are becoming increasingly blurred). But there is such a thing – albeit misnamed – as racism. Those of us who wish to overcome it must first try to understand its history – both ancient and modern.
If prejudice is an ancient instinct, that instinct has been indulged over the last few hundred years, and has been provoked in modern times by large-scale immigration.
Historical colonialism and racism are inextricably connected. Increased travel in recent centuries brought large numbers of people of different appearance face to face for the first time in human history. Tragically, most of that contact was colonial, and the result has been 300 years of ‘race theory‘ used to justify vicious subjugation and slavery.
The Hollocaust, a permanent scar on the face of mankind, arose from twisted nationalism and pseudo-scientific anti-Jewish racism. Other acts of genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing‘ have likewise derived from pointless nationalist race hatred.
We now know that the pseudo-scientific race theory used to justify the slave trade and the Hollocaust is complete bollocks, but the damage has been done, and the legacy lingers on.
Recent mass immigration has played its part. In the UK, mass immigration from the Commonwealth and, more recently, from eastern Europe has distressed the host population. That distress has manifested as racism. All immigrants whose skin is brown or black, or who speak a different language, or who dress differently have suffered racism, both casual and organised.
For instance, in Pakistan, no one is called ‘Paki‘ as an insult. Britons of Pakistani origin may call each other ‘Paki’ as an affectionate insult, equivalent to ‘freshie‘, meaning behaving like someone who’s just arrived. But to hear a stranger insultingly or agressively call you ‘Paki’ because of your brown skin must be very hurtful. Sadly, such casual cruelty is a consequence of recent mass immigration.
Conservative Islam has set many western Muslims against the Enlightment values that underpin western liberal democracy. This has provoked a racist response. Muslim representatives cry Islamaphobia, and racist Islamaphobia increases.
Hundreds of thousands of desperate economic migrants and asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia are trying to get to Europe for a better life. Europe, feeling the pressure and fearing Islamist terrorism, gets more racist.
We anti-racist liberals feel obliged to defend immigration as a Good Thing. From our media and moral high ground we argue that immigration is good for the cultural and economic wellbeing of the host nation; and that criticism of immigration is racist. However, the large scale of recent immigrations makes less liberal (and less articulate) members of European host populations feel genuinely insecure – and racism feeds on insecurity.
The mass migration that’s stoked racism is driven by deep-rooted inequity and insecurity in the countries of origin. It’ll continue as long as the world is a place where people feel that they need to leave home.
Anti-racist groups and legislation have commendably raised consciousness and made racism unacceptable, but still it persists. We anti-racist white liberals wring our hands helplessly. But we can help – by admitting to our own racism, and by acknowledging that racism may have evolutionary roots.
Some still try to rationalise their prejudice with pseudo-scientific racism and its even-more-evil younger brother, genism, but it’s bullshit. There’s no reason for racism – so why does it thrive?
Historical colonialism is the conventional culprit; but the widespread persistence of irrational racism and colourism, even amongst people of colour, suggests that perhaps nature, rather than nurture, is the supervillain.
We’re puppets of our selfish genes, apparently – and one or more of them might be trying to make us racist. If so, (short of the scientifically distant and politically difficult prospect of finding the gene or genes responsible and eliminating them by mass gene therapy) our best hope is to consciously counter our racist instinct with reason and conscience – fortunately provided by other, more useful, genes – and give our puppet show a happy ending.
Then, dear reader, we can all live happily ever after.
Mass immigration and the USA
Compared with Europe’s challenging recent experiences, the USA (like Canada and Australia) has historically had a more positive relationship with mass immigration. The ‘New World’ (new to the explorers and subsequent immigrants, if not to the native Americans) was built on it. However, attitudes are changing. Wikipedia says:
Public attitudes about immigration in the U.S. were heavily influenced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, 52% of Americans believed that immigration was a good thing overall for the U.S., down from 62% the year before, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. A 2008 Public Agenda survey found that half of Americans said tighter controls on immigration would do ‘a great deal’ to enhance U.S. national security. Harvard political scientist and historian Samuel P. Huntington argued in ‘Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity’ that a potential future consequence of continuing massive immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico, might lead to the bifurcation of the United States. [My bolding]
In western countries, white on black racism and colourism – whatever the deeper cause – is fed by economic pressure. Bollocks-ideology racist groups target poor whites. The insecurities of that increasingly large underclass (championed as the precariat by radical economist Guy Standing) could be resolved by paying all adult citizens an unconditional state income. (See my post about this trending idea, Robots could mean leisure.)
The power of language
In English, the words ‘dark’ and ‘light’, used to describe people’s skin colour, come pre-loaded with values: night and day; danger/cold/badness and safety/warmth/goodness. I am the light, said Jesus, supposedly. ‘White’ and ‘black’ have similar baggage: good and evil.
Even the word for the development of modern liberal ideas, the Enlightenment, is tonally prejudiced. If reason is enlightenment, ignorance is darkness. It even sounds like a skin lightening product: Enlightenment Cream, containing the bleach of reason. Rub it well on your dark superstitious ignorance.
The pre-loaded values aren’t inevitable. It was good that the sun ‘returned’ after the winter solstice (or so said the powerful priestesses of the ruling sacrificial cult) but apart from that, goodness and reason have no intrinsic association with light; and dark isn’t bad.
Some say that the current high status of light and lightness is a symptom of a relatively immature patriarchy; and that the mature matriarchy which preceded it prehistorically (and which was probably not so much a feminist paradise as a bloodthirsty Wicker-Manish cult) valued the moon and the sun more or less equally.
Rational mystics urge us to value light and dark equally, because they’re both part of life. But we ignorant masses love the light and fear the dark. None of this helps when trying to understand and resist innate racism.
Genes or morphic resonance?
Apparently it’s not scientifically correct to talk about ‘a gene for’ something. But it’s a useful phrase, in common parlance; and should be understood as lay shorthand for the complex and not fully understood process of genetic coding. Science can’t yet explain how genes code for instinctive behaviour. Radical biologist Rupert Sheldrake claims that genes aren’t capable of coding behaviour. He says that animals’ instincts are habits remembered in an evolved organising field which resonates with the brain of the individual; and that redundant instincts might continue to resonate.
Therapy for instictive racism
It’s a bit like NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), where a young child (early or pre-humans) has faced a danger perceived as life-threatening (threat to the group) and has been protected by a powerful but destructive mental defence (evolved proto-racist behaviour), which, having done its job at the time and no longer being needed, nevertheless continues, unwanted and warped by circumstances (colonialism) into systematic negativity (full-blown racism), blighting adulthood (recent times).
NLP treatment, as I understand it, is to hypnotise the client, address the rogue ‘part’ and persuade it to retire; but hypnotherapy can’t banish an ancient instinct. You’d have to acknowledge the instinct with due respect (and perhaps a shamanistic ritual or two); and then, empowered by being aware of the evolutionary roots of the ugly historical fruits (racist feelings), rise above them.
As wonderfully illustrated by the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, we’ve got tons of nasty stuff going on down there. Monsters from the id, as the movie had it . If we admit it, it’s easier to live above it.
Or was God an astronaut?
Some writers suggest that about 500,000 years ago humanoid alien visitors created our human ancestors with genetic engineering to do mining and agricultural work, and that they inserted a racist gene to deter one branch of their workforce from mating with another one.
The aliens supposedly managed their workers by also inserting genes for work ethic and obediance, and by posing as gods. Having stocked up, and getting fed up with their increasingly rebellious slaves, they apparently flooded the planet – perhaps to hide the evidence of what they’d done from the powers that be (Intergal?) – and cleared off.
With the help of some sympathetic departing aliens, so the story goes, a few of us built arks (and loaded animals, two by two). We survived the genocidal cataclysm – and so did our creators’ legacy: modified cross-species genes for work ethic, religious obediance and racism. Nice.
Yes, I know…morphic resonance has been dismissed (albeit prematurely and defensively) as pseudo-science; NLP never lived up to its promise; and God as an astronaut, er, lacks evidence…but I like the ideas!
Some feedback from racism experts
I emailed some academics, writers and organisations involved with racism issues, suggesting they might like to read this post and respond. From the response, it seems that some of those working in this field are vested in a totally historical/environmental approach, and are disappointingly opposed to the very idea of evolved prejudice; others are encouragingly open to the idea; and some, surpisingly to me, have already accepted it to greater or lesser extent.
Professor Ian Law (deputy director, centre for ethnicity and racism studies, University of Leeds, UK) replied. He said of my post: ‘A provocative and highly speculative piece with which I fundamentally disagree.’ He seemed shocked by the very idea of a racist gene; and, in support of his opposition to my suggestion, pointed out that there’s no such thing as ‘race’ – which was odd, because I’d pointed out the very same thing in support of my suggestion. (Perhaps he – understandably, busy man, do it myself, skim-reading – didn’t read it properly.) He went further, and said that because there’s no such thing as ‘race’, there’s no such thing as ‘racism’. (Sophist, or what?) He also said that I had no evidence for my case. I asked him if he thought that the behaviour known (rightly or wrongly) as ‘racism’ is wholly learned, and what evidence he had for that. He hasn’t replied.
Dr Marcel Stoezler (Bangor University, Wales, UK) said, ‘I remain unconvinced by the idea of a gene for racism. I think there are simpler, historical explanations’. After a brief exchange of increasingly argumentative emails, Dr Stoetzler said that the question of whether cultural or mental characteristics are genetically inherited has no practical implication, unless for a fascist. Hmm.
Steven Neuberg (professor of psychology, Arizona State University, USA – see postscript 2, below, about evidence from the world of evolutionary psychology), said, after the exchange of a few emails, ‘we agree more than disagree‘. He said he doesn’t like to use the word ‘racism’ because it oversimplifies, masking important complexities which are critical for reducing prejudices; but he agreed with me that we can override instinctive prejudices, and that acknowledging them as such, and understanding them better, will help. He pointed out that he’s written: ‘If we ignore our evolutionary past, we are likely to ignorantly fall prey to the prejudices that have resulted from it. If we confront our evolutionary past (and its psychological consequences) with scholarly rigor, we can more truly know the nature of these prejudices and do something about them.’ [My bolding] (Treckers might enjoy the split infinitives!)
Zahia Smail Salhi (professor of modern Arabic studies, University of Manchester, UK) said, ‘Very interesting and interested!!’.
Professor Melissa McDonald (department of psychology, Oakland University, USA) said, ‘..it would have been extremely unlikely that our ancestors ever encountered a member of another racial group. Thus, it would be very unlikely that we could have evolved to be “racist” in particular. Indeed, exposure to racial outgroups is a relatively recent occurrence in our species’ history. And long before that, we were likely to have developed other mechanisms for detecting and encoding information about the groups we lived in, and the groups we competed with for resources. Modern evolutionary psychologists have suggested that our propensity for racism is built on the scaffolding of mechanisms that function to produce coalitional intergroup bias.’ [My bolding]
Marissa Lithopoulos (PhD practitioner, biologist, stem cell researcher and teaching assistant, University of Ottawa, Canada, who has written about evolved prejudice for schools science website CurioCity – see postscript 2, below) said, ‘Great blog post. I found it really interesting!‘
Frances Aboud (professor of psychology, McGill University, Canada, who researches the development of racial prejudice in children) said, ‘You have some profound and some rambling thoughts in this blog. I found some of it interesting’. She made several points in opposition to the idea of evolved racism and colourism: many rural places in Africa have no shadism; psychologist Harold Fishbein claimed evidence for evolved racism (in his book The Genetic/Evolutonary Basis of Prejudice and Hatred) but it wasn’t convincing; and studies show that infants aren’t racist. Several emails later, Professor Aboud conceded that ‘there might be a heritable tendency to be wary of the unfamiliar…There would also have to be some input from the environment…When developing programs to reduce prejudice, one would want to consider all these things‘. [My bolding]
(In response to Professor Aboud’s comment, I’ve de-rambled this post, which, having been tweaked and expanded, had lost some coherence. I’ve confined most of the quirky rambling to the footnotes.)
Dr Hauwa Mahdi, senior lecturer in the school of global studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, said of my post, ‘It is certainly interesting and takes up issues in new directions‘. However, Dr Mahdi doubts that racism is evolved. She favours a historical explanation combined with race as a social contruct. She said that, as a black person, she hasn’t experienced prejudiced feelings towards any particular ethnic group. She thinks that any evolved behaviour is grounded in social constructs. Dr Mahdi referred me to the sociology concept of habitus, which says that group culture and personal history shape body, mind and social action – which would explain the widespread persistence of unconscious irrational behaviour without recourse to instinct.
Fair enough: if racism and colourism are wholly social constructs, then they’ll be easier to get rid of – eventually. But if if they’re evolved behaviours, or – as seems likely – have somehow become conflated with evolved anti-stranger prejudice, they’ll be more difficult to counter. We’d have to start by acknowledging those evolutionary roots.
Ayesha Tarannum, administrative officer, Muslim Council of Britain, said, ‘I enjoyed reading your piece. It was insightful and thought-provoking – I commend you in discussing issues not often discussed within society, such as colourism’.
Biologist, stem cell researcher and science writer Marissa Lithopoulos of the University of Ottawa has written a readable and informative introductory article, The science of racism: Evolution on CurioCity (a Canadian charitable educational website for school students and teachers).
From the world of evolutionary psychology prejudice studies, Steven Neuberg of Arizona State University argues that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. A 2008 paper, Managing the Threats and Opportunities Afforded by Human Sociality, by Neuberg and Catherine Cottrell of New College of Florida explores the evolutionary aspect of prejudice and social valuation. It says that human social preferences are constrained by our evolved nature as ultrasocial animals; and that people stigmatise those seen as threatening their group.
In a 2012 chapter, Danger, Disease and the Nature of Prejudice(s), Neuberg and Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia expound further on the evolutionary aspect of prejudice. (The main scenario for evolved prejudice, apparently, is the threat of disease.)
A 2001 paper, Origins of Stigmatization: The Functions of Social Exclusion by Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania and Mark Leary of Duke University also argues for an evolved prejudice towards those who, amongst other things, are thought to carry communicable disease.
Two 2017 studies by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and their collaborators from the US, UK, France and China, show that six- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate racial bias in favour of members of their own race and racial bias against those of other races.
Stigmatising those seen as threatening your group doesn’t amount to racism, and early humans weren’t exposed to different ‘races’ during the period when innate prejudice would have evolved; but racism might be a twisted, globalised version of that ancient tribal instinct.
(However, anyone seeking evidence of a gene for racism should be aware that the theoretical approach of evolutionary psychology has generated substantial controversy and criticism.)
From the world of cognitive neuroscience, amygdala studies show a tendency, thought to possibly be innate, for a negative reaction to photographs of dark-skinned faces.
The possible evolutionary aspect of the prejudice shown in the. amygdala studies remains unaddressed, as far as I know.
In 2016 it was reported that research by University College London neuroscientist Hugo Spiers and others, Anterior Temporal Lobe Tracks the Formation of Prejudice, showed that the brain responds more strongly to information about groups portrayed unfavourably, adding weight to the view that the negative depiction of ethnic or religious minorities in the media can fuel racial bias.
Negative media depictions of ethnic groups derive, of course, from centuries of colonial defamation. So perhaps nurture – in the form of historical defamation – has developed the culture of modern racism, and nature – in the form of evolved prejudice pathways in the brain – locks it in.
Imagine by John Lennon
You may say he’s a hypocrite, but he’s not the only one – and you can’t judge the art by the life. A fabulously beautiful song.
Copyright 1971, Northern Songs. Lyrics quoted without permission.
Please feel free to comment… 😨