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The economy of racism

2 November 2010

I hate racism. It’s such a petty and weak concept. Just like bullying, it’s all about sniffing out vulnerable minorities and then relentlessly target them over and over again.

“We might look happy, but all hate each other. No, really.”

But, as distasteful as racism is, it sure is common. Where ever you go, and whatever group of people you talk to, you can almost guarantee that they will have something negative to say about a neighbouring group of people. In fact, racism is such a universal character trait among humans that it is likely to be something fundamental, something programmed into our brains.

So what possible reason could there be to evolve a preference for racist behavior? After all, most people seem to dislike it a much as I do, so you would think it should have disappeared from the population by now.

I believe it all started with our lazy brains. In the old days, when food was scarce, every ounce of energy counted, and you couldn’t go about wasting it on using your expensive brains unnecessary. So, when you met someone for the first time, it was essential to quickly make up your mind about what kind of person they were, without spending too much effort on it. First impressions really did count. Our minds had to resort to taking shortcuts in reaching a decision. We quickly resolved to arrange people into identifiable groups – groups we’ve already made our minds up about.

This was a major step forward in brain usage economy; we could now judge people we’ve never met before just by identifying what group they belonged to – quick and easy. Unfortunately, this also meant that we’ve invented prejudice.

And from then on it’s been down hill. The labour-saving method of judging people by their ethnicity combined with our inherent xenophobia led us to racism. By the means of hair styles, skin colour, language, religious symbols and clothing, we effortlessly (and mostly subconsciously) place people we meet – or even just pass in the street – in predefined pigeon holes. In our Western society, with decades of immigration of people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, we’re predisposed to have made-up – usually inherited, and often wildly inaccurate – opinions on what ‘those kind of people’ are like, even though we might not even know a single person from those particular ethic groups.

And this is exactly how Nazi Germany started

So, is the multicultural society doomed? Well, the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel certainly seem to think so, where she reckons Germany’s experiment in solidarity has ‘utterly failed’. She is tapping into the widespread xenophobia in Germany, with as many as every third person believing Germany is now ‘overrun with foreigners’. The truth is that even though Germany is one of the countries in Europe with the highest level of immigrants, almost 92% of the people in Germany are still German. That’s hardly ‘being overrun’. Rather, it sound suspiciously like blaming ethic minorities for unwelcome changes. With financial, ecological, social and military instability ever on the increase, and people getting ever more frustrated, a scapegoat is needed. And just like in the 1930s, the easy targets are ‘the other ones’, the ones we know little or nothing about. Surely, ‘they’ would be capable of anything? Even of destroying our ‘fine Christian nation’.

If this all sounds eerily familiar, it’s not just because that’s exactly how Nazi Germany started, but it’s what always happens in times of change. When things go from bad to worse, foreigners get the blame.

But I don’t want to finish this post on a negative note. Being an eternal optimist, I believe there is something we can learn from history: we might not be able to abolish prejudice and racism, but if we take the time to get to know a few people before we make up our minds on their ethic group, we can at least base our prejudice on personal experience, rather than getting our opinions ready-made from the press and friends and family. I think we owe ourselves that much.

That, and also making damn sure we don’t belong to any kind of minority ourselves.

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