In which I suggest that racism is a nasty modern twist on an ancient anti-stranger instinct.
August 2016 | last updated September 2018
15,000 words | 90 minutes | Contents
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
(Some readers, seeing the word ‘genetic‘, have read no further, assuming that this is a standard ultra-racist pseudo-scientific justification for racism. It isn’t – it’s just the opposite.)
Colour me racist – blame my genes…
In which I, as a UK 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, post-Enlightenment humanist goodness can prevail
‘A really good read’
Dr Gavin Evans, Birkbeck, University of London, UK
‘Provocative and highly speculative…I fundamentally disagree’
Professor Ian Law, University of Leeds, UK
‘I remain unconvinced’
Dr Marcel Stoetzler, Bangor University, UK
‘We agree more than disagree’
Professor Steven Neuberg, Arizona State University, USA
Professor Zahia Smail Salhi, University of Manchester, UK
‘Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that racism is built on [evolved] intergroup bias’
Professor Melissa McDonald, Oakland University, Michigan, USA
‘Great blog post…really interesting!’
Marissa Lithopoulos, University of Ottawa, Canada
‘Some profound thoughts…There might be a heritable tendency to be wary of the unfamiliar’
Professor Frances Aboud, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
‘Interesting..takes up issues in new directions’
Dr Hauwa Mahdi, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
‘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, UK
‘I took a look at your blog and really enjoyed it’
Anton Gollwitzer, Yale University, USA
‘I tend to agree with most of what you say’
Professor Neal Curtis, University of Auckland, New Zealand
There are no human races / Different human populations / Ethnicity / We’re all just human / ‘Scientific’ racism / The slave trade / The Holocaust
Commonwealth immigration encouraged / Powell was wrong / Too many black Britons in jail / Wrongful convictions of black ‘gang members’ / Racism and black British mental health issues
Education / Arabic clothing / Government concern about segregation / Female genital mutilation
Support for Islamism / The war on terror / Denial / Conspiracy theories
Anti-Muslim racism / A personal perspective / The far-right / Rational fear
Reformation: a double-edged sword / A post-Enlightenment respectful suggestion
Evolutionary psychology / Cognitive neuroscience
Criticism of evolutionary psychology / Human taxonomy / Slavery: post-emancipation ‘apprenticeship’ / FGM: pseudo-medico-justification / Mass immigration and the USA / Economic pressure / The power of language / Genes or morphic resonance? / Therapy for instinctive racism / Or was God an astronaut?
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 suppress 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 sometimes 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 among people with brown or black skin. In this semi-secret culture of prejudice, sometimes 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 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 starting 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…)
The conventional explanation for racism is the horrible history of subjugation and colonialism.
Culturally ingrained post-colonial white 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 and British African Caribbeans, 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.
There are no human races
Racists say that there are different human races, some of which are intrinsically superior to others.
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.
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.
In other words, there are no human races.
(There’s also no such thing, strictly speaking, as ‘the human race‘ – but ‘the human subspecies‘ isn’t catchy. ‘The human race’ is a harmless and inclusive phrase in common use. It’s fine until the time when the word ‘race’ stops being used altogether – except as a technical term in the biology of non-human life forms.)
Different human populations
The differences between differently evolved human populations are mostly superficial. However there are some serious 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 superficial 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 (Indian subcontinent)
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 1999 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 ethnicity 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.
(The word ‘Asian‘ in ‘Asian British’ is short for South Asian and means having ethnic origins in the Indian subcontinent. See my post Asian, Indian, Pakistani? about this use of the word ‘Asian’.)
Since 2013, UK police have had to use self-defined ethnicity (SDE) codes rather than the shorthand IC codes (see above) during ‘stop and search’ operations. The person stopped is asked to say which of the 16 SDE codes defines their ethnicity.
‘Mixed race‘ is frequently used as a description or self-description in the context of ethnicity. The problem with this epithet is that there are no human races. ‘Mixed heritage‘ is better.
We’re all just human
The 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 the different populations are not races.
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 shouldn’t matter, that is. Obviously, if you’re black, it currently does matter (unless, perhaps, you have the elite status of a Michael Jackson).
Pseudo-scientific racism still lurches on, stalking mainstream science, but now we know better. However, 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.
‘Scientific’ or ideological racism is based on the obnoxious and fallacious idea that the different human populations are separate races in a hierarchy of superiority. It started when 18th-century European philosophers, 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 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. Perhaps hunting and gathering was an interesting and sociable activity, whereas farming was boring and tedious. Perhaps thoughts turned to how to get someone else to do it for you, preferably for free. Farming led to city states, which led to warfare, which led to captives (and later, capitalism). Bingo!
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 latched on to existing African slavery systems and created the massive Atlantic slave trade, thereby instituting a whole new level of organised vicious inhumanity.
An estimated 12 million slaves entered the Atlantic trade between the 16th and 19th centuries. About four million died in Africa after capture, 1.5 million died on board ship, and 10.5 million reached the Americas to work on plantations.
The death rate on plantations was high, a result of overwork, poor nutrition and work conditions, brutality and disease. Many plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than provide the means and conditions for the survival of their existing slaves.
Kindness – or conscience – eventually prevailed. Opposition to slavery and to the slave trade began in the 1770s. The abolition of slavery was completed in the Caribbean by 1850; and in the USA by 1865.
The USA didn’t compensate slave ‘owners’, but Britain did. The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act required slave ‘owners’ to be compensated. The government borrowed £20m, equivalent today to £17bn. (It took until 2015 to complete the loan repayment.) 47,000 people got compensation. No money and no apology has ever been granted by the British state to the people it enslaved, or to their descendants.
Britain also managed to continue the racist brutality. The uncompensated British slaves were forced to continue their slavery for four more years in the name of ‘apprenticeship‘, during which the brutal punishment for working too slowly or taking time off included being hung by the hands from a plank and forced to ‘dance’ a treadmill.
America the Beautiful is scarred by its legacy of slavery . Sixty years after the achievements of the civil rights movement, the African American minority continues to face systemic and personal discrimination and prejudice.
The legacy of slavery wasn’t quite so bad in the Caribbean. After abolition, former slaves were in the majority in the islands, and, after independence – achieved between 1962 (Jamaica) and 1983 (St Kitts & Nevis) – their descendants went on to assume power.
However, the UK African Caribbean minority – those who migrated to the UK in the 1950s and 60s and their descendants living in the UK – have faced, like the African American minority, prejudice and disadvantage due in part to the legacy of slavery. (See below.)
There’s been anti-Jewish racism since the Jews’ most recent exile from Israel by the Roman empire, and their consequent dispersion throughout Europe.
Jewish diaspora communities were able to live in productive harmony with host communities, but cynical anti-Jewish rabble-rousing led to outbreaks of racist violence, or ‘pogroms‘; and Christian extremism led to persecution and expulsion.
For instance, the Granada massacre of 1066, a Muslim pogrom in which approximately 4,000 Jews were killed, marked the end of centuries of peaceful coexistence with a liberal Muslim regime in Spain. The Catholic reconquest of Spain led to many Jews being killed by the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and elsewhere, and to the eventual expulsion from Spain of over 50,000 Jews.
Savage pogroms continued all over Europe until the last century.
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, black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, publicly spoke out against black anti-Judaism. He acknowledged Jewish participation in the civil rights movement, and actively supported the state of Israel.
(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: Holocaust, Hitler’s insane ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. Extreme nationalism, boosted by the writings of Luther and Nietzsche and by racist, pseudo-scientific US eugenics programmes funded by Carnegie, Rockefeller and Kellogg, resulted in the genocide of six million Jews, carried out mainly by ordinary people in thrall to authority.
The famous experiment by US social psychologist Stanley Milgram showed how ordinary people can do that. Perhaps, however, the Holocaust executioners, besides acting in blind obedience to a ‘scientifically’ racist authority, were also indulging an instinctive racist urge.
Ironically, extreme nationalism is now a charge made against the powerful state of Israel in its conflict with neighbouring Palestine. Even more ironically, perhaps, supporters of the Palestinian cause who make that charge and criticise Israeli Zionism are accused (perhaps correctly in some cases) of anti-Jewish racism. And so it goes.
Also, showing that no one’s immune, there’s Jew-on-Jew racism in Israel, in particular against Ethiopian Jews. A June 2018 news report said that a major Israeli winery faced calls for a customer boycott after its chief executive admitted to discriminating against employees of Ethiopian origin to accommodate demands from devout Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin) hardliners, who’d questioned whether all the Ethiopians were Jewish, and, therefore, whether the wine was kosher. A Sephardi (Jews of North African origin) chief rabbi reportedly said that there could be no explanation other than ‘pure racism‘.
Outside Israel, despite the terrible lesson of the Holocaust, anti-Judaism continues to thrive. A 2008 report by the US department of state found that there was an increase in anti-Judaism across the world, and that both old and new expressions of anti-Judaism persisted. A 2012 US report (by the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor) also noted a continued global increase in anti-Judaism, and found that Holocaust denial and opposition to Israeli policy were used to promote or justify anti-Judaism.
Is there a gene for racism? Ideological, ‘scientific’ racism is now known to be rubbish, but still creeps on; and the legacy of the slave trade and the Holocaust 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.
If racism is based on an instinct that’s redundant but still active, then it can be provoked by circumstances.
Relatively recent mass immigration to European countries from former colonies and some consequential cultural and security issues have provoked racism in host communities. Recent large-scale immigration to the UK from eastern Europe under the European Union free movement rule, and large-scale migrations to Europe across the Mediterranean have added to this provocation.
Racism-provoking mass migration
UK postwar mass immigration
– Commonwealth immigration encouraged
– Powell was wrong
– Too many black Britons in jail
– Wrongful convictions of black ‘gang members’
– Racism and black British mental health issues
Theres not much racism in the UK, 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 provoked by recent mass immigration.
There have, of course, been invasions and migrations of people from far and wide into Britain for millenia (including, briefly, north African Roman soldiers and their families). We’re a mongrel nation.
After the last succesful invasion in 1066, we English were mainly Anglo-Saxon (English-speaking, of German origin) peasants with a French-Norman (then French-speaking, of Scandinavian origin) ruling class, with some Britons and Vikings. People from all over the world have continued to migrate here from time to time – but mass immigration is a recent phenomenon.
UK postwar mass immigration
Commonwealth immigration encouraged
Mass migration to the UK began in 1948 after World War Two (with the arrival of the Empire Windrush from Jamaica) when a paternalistic government, without consulting the people, enabled and encouraged large-scale immigration from some countries in the Commonwealth (a voluntary association of former UK colonies).
The 1948 British Nationality Act gave all Commonwealth citizens the status of ‘citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies‘ and recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families with them.
The National Archives (the official UK government archive) says:
‘When the Second World War ended in 1945, it was quickly recognised that the reconstruction of the British economy required a large influx of immigrant labour. The Royal Commission on Population reported in 1949 that immigrants of ‘good stock’ would be welcomed ‘without reserve‘, and potential newcomers from the Caribbean and elsewhere soon became aware of the pressing needs of the labour market in the UK.’
(The commission’s lofty, careless and patronising opinion that the required immigrants would be welcomed without reserve might seem to be a reminder of bygone times. However, policy makers continue to sanction mass immigration for economic or ideological reasons with no concern for the well-being of either host or immigrant communities.)
Postwar mass immigration from the Commonwealth continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s. 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.
The indigenous UK population responded on the whole with a friendly, if cautious, welcome. However, there was also an undercurrent of grumbling, semi-coherent resentment. Many working-class whites were 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.
Polls have repeatedly shown that opposition to immigration persists. However, that persistent undercurrent of resentment isn’t only anti-immigrant – it’s also a resentment of imposed change.
For instance, the 1950s exercise was repeated more recently when the UK government, again without consulting the people, allowed mass immigration from poor east European countries under the EU freedom of movement rule. (See below.) Most west European countries exercised their right to limit such immigration, but the UK didn’t.
Finally given a say, in a 2016 referendum, the UK electorate then voted – by a small majority, but unexpectedly – to leave the EU. An insightful post-referendum poll showed that although immigration was a major factor, the high numbers of migrants didn’t bother Britons so much as the high rate of change.
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 (deep googling produced no convincing images) – 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.
UK postwar mass immigration
Powell was wrong
In spite of the development of superficially friendlier and more relaxed relations between locals and newcomers. the ongoing undercurrent of resentment and 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 forecast coloured immigrant communities clashing with indigenous white communities. He quoted a Latin poet who foresaw the River Tiber foaming with blood.
Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet. His career was effectively over, and he sank into richly deserved political obscurity. But Powell had 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. However, Powell and his speech are still remembered, 50 years later. People looking for a excuse for racism still say, ‘Powell was right‘. He touched a nerve, not just with the militant dockers, but with many ordinary people. It was the first time an elected representative had publicly voiced people’s resentment of imposed mass immigration.
However, in what he actually said, Powell was wrong. Beneath his stirring verse was the banal stink of racism. Powell couldn’t imagine black and white getting on together – he said that irreconcilable ‘racial’ differences would cause mass civil disturbance. That hasn’t happened.
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, thanks largely to anti-racist campaigning and legislation, that’s more or less how it’s been. Twenty-something ‘Millennials‘ are far less racist and colourist than previous generations.
However, Britons with African Caribbean and South Asian heritage (now comprising about 14 percent of the UK population) continue to face prejudice and discrimination, institutional and otherwise.
For instance, a 2017 UK government ‘racial disparity audit’ found that the rate of white people in work was higher than that of ethnic minorities – with a larger gap in the North (13.6 percent) than the South (9 percent) – and that those from non-white backgrounds were under-represented at senior levels in public sector jobs. The survey findings were displayed in a government website, Ethnicity Facts and Figures.
Black Britons also suffer discrimination in the criminal justice system and disproportionate mental health problems.
UK postwar mass immigration
Too many black Britons in jail
The 2017 government-commissioned Lammy report, an independent review by Labour MP David Lammy into the treatment of, and outcomes for, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system (CJS) found significant overrepresentation. Despite making up just 14% of the population, BAME men and women make up 25% of prisoners, while over 40% of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds.
If the prison population reflected the make-up of England and Wales, there would be over 9,000 fewer people in prison – the equivalent of 12 average-sized prisons. There is greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than in the United States. These disproportionate numbers represent wasted lives and a source of anger and mistrust.
The independent review found that many of the causes of BAME overrepresentation lie outside the CJS, as do the answers to it. People from a black background are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those from a white background. Black children are more than twice as likely to grow up in a lone parent family. Black and mixed ethnicity boys are more likely than white boys to be permanently excluded from school and to be arrested as a teenager. The review found that these issues start long before a young man or woman ever enters the CJS and therefore can’t be addressed by the CJS alone.
However, the review found that BAME individuals face bias, including overt, covert and unconscious discrimination, in the CJS; and that more can be done to reduce the proportion of BAME individuals in the CJS and to ensure that all defendants and offenders are treated equally, whatever their ethnicity.
One particular aspect of BAME overrepresentation in the CJS deserves special attention: the wrongful convictions of black ‘gang’ members under the legal doctrine of ‘joint enterprise‘.
UK postwar mass immigration
Wrongful convictions of black ‘gang members’
Many young black men have been wrongfully convicted in the UK under the common law doctrine of joint enterprise. This long-established principle allows defendants to be found guilty of offences committed by another person if they have ‘agreed’ to act together in a joint enterprise.
A 2014 government committee report said that:
- Almost 500 people were convicted of murder between 2005 and 2013 as secondary parties in joint-enterprise cases.
- A large proportion of those convicted were young black or mixed-ethnicity men. Many offences were recorded as gang-related attacks.
- 37% of those serving very long sentences for joint enterprise offences were black (11 times the proportion of black people in the general population, and almost three times as many as in the prison population).
A charity, Joint Enterprise – Not Guilty by Association (JENGbA), told the committee that 80% of the convictees they were helping were black. According to JENGbA, joint enterprise was targeting the most marginalised sections of society, and was having the effect of breaking communities apart.
The committee suggested two main reasons for the disproportionate impact of joint enterprise on young black men:
- Black and minority ethnicity men may be over-represented in the kinds of communities where young men typically hang around in groups that are labelled by outsiders as gangs
- An association may exist unconsciously in the minds of the police, prosecutors and juries between being a young ethnic-minority male and being in a gang, and therefore being involved in forms of urban violence.
This personal and institutional prejudice can be subtle. For instance, the word ‘gang’ is often used, rather than ‘group’, in public discourse about crime to signal ethnicity rather than to describe the links between a group of suspects.
The 2017 Lammy report (see above) found that there’s a settled narrative about young BAME people associating in gangs, but far too little attention paid to the older criminals who provide them with weapons and use them to sell drugs; and that the criminal justice system must avoid equating gang membership with young people simply associating in groups.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association in its submission to the Lammy report said that in the absence of educational or employment progression, or ambition, it may become a default position for BAME youngsters to fall in with a ‘gang’ which offers certainty of identity and rewards, albeit high-risk and short-term.
The report, noting that children as young as twelve are being recruited by gang leaders to sell drugs, urged the prosecution service to review its role in protecting vulnerable individuals who are coerced into gang activities by powerful adults.
UK postwar mass immigration
Racism and black British mental health issues
Black people in the UK also suffer disproportionately from mental health problems as a result of institutional and personal racism.
Black British and Asian British communities have strong cultural taboos about mental health problems. Such taboos can stop individuals accessing NHS services. This is most prevalent in the black community.
Paradoxically, however, UK men of African Caribbean ethnic origin are said to be 17 times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and four times more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
The disturbing statistics also show that black people are six times more likely than white people to be inpatients in mental health units; and that, because of cultural pressures in the black community, they report mental health issues significantly later than white people. Such delays can deepen any problems, and can lead to more black people being sectioned.
Concern has been expressed about the level of state violence inflicted on black people detained in psychiatric settings, and the routine use of taser firearms in hospital settings.
Black people are said to be subject to over-medication, misdiagnosis and forcible restraint. Too many black patients have died while detained in psychiatric care. There’s been a disproportionate number of deaths in police custody of black male mental health services users.
A 2017 government report into deaths in custody showed a possible racial factor. The report said:
‘Deaths of people from BAME communities, in particular young black men, resonate with the black community’s experience of systemic racism, and reflect wider concerns about discriminatory over-policing, stop and search, and criminalisation.’
The government response to the report promised some reforms but contained no reference to the ethnicity of those who died in police custody.
United Nations human rights experts expressed serious concerns in 2018 about racism rooted in the fabric of the United Kingdom’s society, given the disproportionate number of people of African descent and of ethnic minorities dying due to excessive use of force by state security. They said:
‘The deaths reinforce the experiences of structural racism, over-policing and criminalisation of people of African descent and other minorities in the UK.’
Data disclosed by the Metropolitan Police in August 2017 had shown that people of African descent and those belonging to ethnic minority groups, in particular young African and Caribbean men were twice as likely to die after the use of force by police officers and the subsequent lack or insufficiency of access to appropriate healthcare.
According to the experts, these deaths occurred in many circumstances, following the use of force involving:
- tear gas agents
- long-handled batons
- electroshock weapons (Tasers)
- physical restraint resulting in the inhibition of the respiratory system and asphyxia
- restraint equipment
- denial of appropriate healthcare
Mental illness is said to be no more common in Africa or the Caribbean than it is in the UK – but racism can make people mentally ill. Immigrants are generally more likely to develop mental illness than the host community – but the risk is doubled for black migrants to white-majority countries, and the risk is increased again in their children.
Racism is prejudice plus power. Racism experienced by people of African Caribbean ancestry living in the white-majority UK carries – in addition to the baggage of empire experienced by all generations of postwar immigrants – the painful legacy of slavery. Black people in white USA have similarly disproportionate mental health problems.
Mental health services have been accused of institutional racism in their treatment of black patients. The racist notion of the black man as ‘big, black and dangerous‘ is said to prevail in institutional service settings.
The government apparently says that ‘institutional racism’ isn’t a useful term – but the shameful lack of a coherent strategy to adress this issue is clearly an institutional problem.
The undercurrent of racism provoked by postwar mass immigration persists, and has serious consequences – especially for young black men.
More generally, there has been some visible conflict between immigrant and host communities. Currently, it’s between some UK Muslims and, er, the UK.
Racism-provoking mass migration
Saudi-exported conservative Islam in the UK
– UK Muslims and self-segregation
– UK Muslims and Islamist terrorism
– Criticism of Muslims – Islamophobia?
– The future for Islam in the West
Islam isn’t a ‘race’, of course. But most western Muslims have ethnic origins in South Asia or North Africa; and some imported Muslim behaviour provokes racist hostility.
Many South Asian immigrants to the UK in the 1950s and 60s were Muslims, mostly from Pakistan (which then included East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). As in the world Muslim population, some 90% were Sunni. In recent decades, many UK Muslims have been influenced by an extreme version of Sunnism.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has spent billions over the last four decades on an international programme to replace mainstream Sunnism with Wahhabism/Salafism, a Sunni-based extreme fundamentalist ‘true’ version of Islam.
This programme funds religious teachers, faith schools and mosques in the UK and elsewhere. Reviews and surveys (see below) indicate that this ideology has been adopted by a large minority of UK Muslims.
There are two main sources of racism-provoking conflict between some UK Muslims and the host community, both deriving from Saudi-exported conservative Islam: self-segregation and attitude towards Islamist terrorism.
A further source of conflict is that when Muslims are criticised with regard to these issues, representatives often avoid answering the criticism by describing it as Islamophobia.
The first source of racism-provoking conflict between some UK Muslims and the host community is that over the last 20 to 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 widely adopted Saudi-exported conservative version of Islam.
UK Muslims and self-segregation
Conservative Islamic teachers exported to the UK or trained here as part of the Saudi Wahhabi 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.
Ofsted’s 2017 annual report, in a section headed ‘Shared values‘, strongly criticised private faith schools that deliberately resist ‘British values‘.
The report said that a core function of education is to teach the values and culture that bind society; that there’s no conflict between this and religious pluralism; and that teaching fundamental British values encourages respect and tolerance for others’ views.
The report identified schools that sought to isolate young people from the mainstream, that failed to prepare them for life in Britain, and that in some cases actively undermined fundamental British values.
Such schools disseminated beliefs widely shared within the faith community that the school served, but that clashed with British values or equalities law.
In some of the faith schools found to be inadequate, the premises were unsafe, dank and squalid. Basic checks, such as whether staff were suitable to work with children, weren’t in place. Ofsted inspectors found instances of:
- Sectarian and sexist texts that encouraged domestic violence and the subjugation of women (for instance a book titled Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell)
- Refusal to acknowledge lesbian, gay and bisexual people
- Children being taught mainly religious texts with a restricted curriculum leaving them with little or no ability to read and write in English, no qualifications, no skills to get work, and no preparation for life in modern Britain.
In some cases, children were being educated illegally in unregistered faith schools with no safeguards to make sure they were safe and receiving a decent education. Such schools exploited loopholes in definitions of education, and were deliberately not registered to avoid regulation.
The report said that legislation was inadequate to tackle unregistered schools. There was no record of children who’d never been in school, and there was no requirement to register a child being home-educated. Parents could decline a home visit by the local authority.
The report section concluded that this matters because the ‘British values’ of democracy, tolerance, individual liberty, mutual respect and the rule of law are the principles that keep society free from the radical and extreme views that can lead to violence.
This criticism was clearly aimed at some Muslim schools, but, weirdly, the report didn’t specify which faith the problem faith schools belong to (apart from naming Al-Hijrah School, a Birmingham Muslim school, as an example of bad practice).
This could only have been because of an exaggeration of the worthy, politically correct, leftist multiculturalism that pervades public sector institutions. Multiculturalism is currently under attack, and the misguided element of that tendency that prevents criticism of conservative Islam helps no one.
A 2016 independent review into opportunity and integration that found segregation at worrying levels (see below) blamed cultural misogyny and patriarchy but also blamed public bodies which ignore or condone divisive religious practices for fear of being called racist or Islamophobic.
However, it’s clear that most, if not all, of the schools criticised in the Ofsted report are Muslim schools whose aim is to promote conservative Islam, to segregate pupils from mainstream society, and to resist ‘British values’.
(My post, Patriotism – for scoundrels addresses the UK policy of trying to encourage integration by teaching ‘British values‘ in schools. I suggest that such values aren’t exclusively British – they’re European Enlightenment values.)
UK Muslims and self-segregation
Changes in clothing are an obvious sign of the segregation fostered by Saudi-exported conservative Islam. In the 1970s, UK Muslim women (mostly of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin) generally wore either a salwar kameez (a traditional outfit originally worn in the Punjab region, now popular throughout South Asia) 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 veil, or a burqa (a one-piece garment that covers the head, face and body, often having a mesh screen to see through). 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 use of face veils predates Islam.
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. ‘Niqab’ and ‘burqa’ are also Arabic words also not in the Quran.
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 eye-slit niqab and the one-piece burqa, banned in some European countries, provoke controversy, criticism and, unfortunately, racism. When worn in Europe, they create an impression of deliberate separation, nicely symbolising the current tendency for some Muslims living in the west to segregate themselves.
UK Muslims and self-segregation
Government concern about segregation
The report focused on the effect of segregation on Muslim women and children. It said that many Muslim 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 reaction 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.)
In 2018, UK government communities secretary Sajid Javid (since promoted to home secretary following the Windrush scandal) said in a Guardian interview that 770,000 people living in England spoke little or no English. Javid promised to expand the teaching of English for immigrants. He said that up to 70% of those unable to speak the language were women, most of whom were from Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities.
Javid, a high-profile Muslim politician, said that he’d been subjected to regular racist attacks on social media – echoing a similar comment by London mayor Sadiq Khan. He described the ‘Punish a Muslim‘ letter that had been sent to people in several cities and to four Labour MPs as sick and a crime.
The cabinet minister, whose parents were Pakistani immigrants, spoke movingly about his mother’s struggle to learn English. He said that as a school child he was called ‘Paki’ and was physically attacked for being a different colour. He said that although British society was now much more diverse and united than when he was a child, there were now too many communities that were very segregated.
Government statistics based on data from the 2011 census, published on the website Ethnicity facts and figures, said that:
- 726.000 could speak English but not well, and 138,000 spoke no English (making a total of 864,000)
- Three in five (60%) of those who couldn’t speak English well were women
- Of those with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnic background, women were five times more likely than men to speak no English
However, Javid’s figures were close enough. Referring to evidence including the recent independent review into opportunity and integration (see above), Javid announced a £50m government plan to boost integration in Britain. He said that the government intended to tackle segregation by:
- acting against cultural practices not compatible with the British way of life such as polygamy
- tackling disproportionately low take-up rates of free childcare by South Asian women
- using the roll-out of universal credit to target ethnic minorities and help them to integrate better
The Conservative’s universal credit scheme was an ongoing universal disaster, but Javid’s other ideas had possibilities. Alternatively, the £50m could have helped moderate Muslims to end self-segregation themselves.
According to a 2016 poll, 53% of UK Muslims wanted to integrate more, an aspiration that could perhaps have been boosted into a moderate Muslim campaign against the Saudi-imported fundamentalism that has fostered segregation.
UK Muslims and self-segregation
Female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting (also euphemistically known as female circumcision) – is another high-profile imported behaviour which emphasises the racism-provoking self-segregation of some UK Muslims.
Predating Islam in its origin, FGM was adopted by some strands of Islam. Previously found mainly amongst Muslims in north Africa and the Middle East, it’s recently been imported to the UK by Saudi clerics and by Somalian refugees and other African migrants.
Some 9,000 cases were logged by the NHS in 2016-17, mostly in pregnant women of African ethnic origin, and mostly carried out outside the UK. It’s thought that these recorded cases may be the tip of an iceberg, with over 50,000 girls at risk of FGM in the UK.
FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985 but, so far, there’ve been no convictions.
Somali parents are known to take their daughters home for FGM. Others club together to import cutters. This practice has led to FGM tourism, as people come to the UK from Europe to get their daughters cut.
FGM is often described as a cultural custom, but it’s inextricably associated with conservative Islam.
FGM has been condemned as un-Islamic by the Muslim Council of Britain. However, all four major schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence pronounce on FGM and allow it. Such jurisprudence is considered fallible and changeable, but currently:
- In the Hanafi school of law, FGM is ‘permissable‘;
- In Maliki, it’s ‘a preferred act‘;
- In Shaf’i, it’s ‘an obligation‘;
- In Hanbali, it’s ‘an honourable thing‘.
FGM is promoted by Salafi Islam, and may therefore be gaining support amongst UK conservative Muslims of Pakistani ethnic origin, especially in self-segregated areas in the north of England.
‘Circumcision is prescribed for both males and females… circumcision of women is mustahabb (recommended, but not essential; fulfilment of which is rewarded). There are reports in the Sunnah which indicate that circumcision for women is prescribed in Islam. Female circumcision has not been prescribed for no reason, rather there is wisdom behind it and it brings many benefits.’
Munajjid goes on to quote two doctors (neither of whom seems to actually exist) who list in gruesome detail many spurious reasons to commit the revolting crime of FGM.
This rubbish by the esteemed scholar and his mystery medics is published on a highly popular Islamic advice website. Similar advice is given on many other Islamic websites.
Given government concern about segregation and the lack of mainstream educational opportunity for many UK Muslim women and girls (see above), and given the spread of Wahhabi/Salafi teaching in the UK, there’s good reason to be concerned that tens of thousands of UK Muslim girls may be at risk of FGM.
There’s some anti-FGM campaigning from within UK Islam. The Muslim Council of Britain has collaborated with the African women’s support and campaigning organisation Forward to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM and warn practitioners that they face up to 14 years in prison if they subject girls to the practice. The small Bristol FGM survivors’ group Daughters of Eve aims to protect young girls from FGM-practicing communities.
However, as with UK Muslims’ response to Islamist terrorism (see below), the widespread, high-profile campaign needed is missing. Denial, indifference and ambivalence have muted the response.
There are several UK charities opposing FGM, but there is no national campaign organised by UK Muslim women. Muslim women who disagree with FGM should come together and speak out loudly and clearly against this barbaric practice.
The continuing practice by some UK Muslims of mutilating their young daughters for religious reasons compounds the problem of Muslim self-segregation – and disgusts the host community.
Given FGM’s clear association with conservative Islam and the conspicuous silence from UK Muslim women, this bizarre practice- brutal misogyny carried out by women – can only increase anti-Muslim racism.
Saudi-exported conservative Islam has resulted in many European Muslims deliberately segregating themselves. Islam is said to be not only a religion but a way of life. Saudi conservative Islam teaches that European Muslims should protect their way of life from the influence of the ‘decadent’ host community.
The consequent self-segregation – as manifested in illiberal schools, Arabic clothing, coercive control of women, and female genital mutilation – provokes anti-Islamic racism.
A 2018 survey of attitudes to immigration, the National Conversation on Immigration – in which almost 20,000 people took part – found that a large minority of people in the UK think that immigrants don’t integrate properly. The survey also found that anti-Muslim prejudice was widespread. Participants believed that British culture was under threat because people were forced, usually by schools and councils, to pander to ‘political correctness‘ and the sensitivities of Muslims.
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.
The other main source of racism-provoking conflict is some UK Muslims’ attitude towards the brutal sectarian and anti-western Islamist terrorism that killed over 1,000 people in 2016. Most UK Muslims say that they oppose Islamist terrorism and that it’s un-Islamic. But polls reveal ambivalent or even supportive attitudes towards Islamist attacks and movements.
The terrorism is carried out by a very small minority of Muslims. 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-West views fostered by Saudi extremists and, as revealed by opinion polls, held by a large minority of UK Muslims.
UK Muslims and Islamist terrorism
Support for Islamism
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 (see below).
Following the failure of the Syrian ‘Arab Spring‘ uprising and the emergence of Isis, a 2015 survey found that 20 per cent of British Muslims had some sympathy with those who’d gone to fight in Syria.
The spin given to the results by the newspaper that commissioned the 2015 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.)
The anti-West views shown by these polls have been fostered by Saudi extremists.
The US state department estimates that over the past four decades Saudi Arabia has invested more than $10bn (£6bn) worldwide in replacing mainstream Sunni Islam with its extremist Wahhabism.
Some of that money has funded Islamist terrorism. EU intelligence experts estimate that 15 to 20 per cent of the $10bn has been diverted to al-Qaida and other violent jihadists. A leaked US cable said:
‘Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban…and other terrorist groups.’
Not all Islamist terrorism is inspired by Saudi Wahhabi/Salafism. Salafism has historically been apolitical, and most Salafis are not violent. However, the anti-West views held by a large minority of UK Muslims stem from the imported puritanical Salafist belief that the Muslim world must be held separate from the West. In common with all Islamist terrorists, Salafism believes that there’s an irreconcilable clash of civilizations.
UK Muslims and Islamist terrorism
The war on terror
The war on terror, AKA the ‘global war on terrorism‘, launched by US president George W Bush following the 2001 9/11 attacks by the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda, has been widely seen by Muslims as a war against Muslims.
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.
The war on terror, which started as an understandable retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, turned into a strategically incompetent neo-colonialist shambles. However, that doesn’t justify the mass murder of UK civilians – as one in five UK Muslims believed.
UK Muslims and Islamist terrorism
Muslim representatives insist that the terrorism is un-Islamic. 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 un-Islamic 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.
UK Muslims and Islamist terrorism
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.’
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 by US president Bush and UK premier Tony Blair to justify the war. The 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’. Blair helped out by falsely claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
This shabby conspiracy and the consequent shambolic action and aftermath contributed – understandably – to Muslims’ strident opposition to the war on terror.
It’s understandable that Muslims feel disrespected or demonised by the host community with regard to Islamist terrorism. It’s understandable that Muslims resent having to justify themselves after every attack. Islam as followed by most Muslims is, as they say, a religion of peace. The Quran says that killing an innocent person is a sin, and that war is only permitted in self-defence.
And yet…Islamist terrorism, however ‘un-Islamic‘, clearly comes from within Islam – so bland denial, although understandable, actually makes things worse.
In 2016 the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella body for mosques, schools and associations, announced its own programme to prevent young Muslims being radicalised. Better late than never, or too little too late?
However, it seems that the MCB’s programme was not only arguably too little – it was non-existent. By March 2018, there was no sign of it. I asked the MCB what happened to it. I’ve had no reply.
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 Islamophobic 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 – the Rohingya crisis.)
Criticism of Muslims – Islamophobia?
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 unintentionally – racist or colourist. It’s certain that many less-liberal indigenous UK citizens harbour racist Islamophobic feelings about the Muslim community.
Criticism of Muslims – Islamophobia?
A personal perspective
As a critic of conservative Islam who’s 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 here. (See also my liberal critique of Islam in the UK, Fear of Islamophobia.) I confess that these aspects provoke some racist feelings in me about Muslims in general. However, whilst acknowledging those feelings, I consciously try to live above them.
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. My wife and I 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 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. I mention my Pakistani Muslim wife and her family not to show how tolerant and liberal I am 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 Islamophobia – it’s tough love.
Criticism of Muslims – Islamophobia?
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).
Criticism of Muslims – Islamophobia?
After the horrors of 9/11, the 7/7 London bombings, the coordinated Paris and Brussells attacks, the vehicle attacks throughout Europe, the 2017 Manchester bombing and the threats made by Isis, it’s natural to fear further Islamist atrocity.
Research suggests that humans have evolved a tendency to stigmatise those seen as threatening their social group. (See postscript 2, below.) 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.
Calling it ‘Islamophobia‘ doesn’t help.
Far-right racist extremists claim that Muslim immigration to western Europe is a Trojan horse, with a hidden agenda to replace liberal democracy with an Islamic state.
The far-right idea of an organised plot by UK Muslims to destroy democracy is a paranoid delusion, but an opinion poll has shown that a large minority of UK Muslims supports the idea of a UK Islamic state. The moderate majority of UK Muslims keeps quiet, allowing the extremist minority to take front-stage.
Assuming that liberal democracy will continue, what future hope is there for the reconcilliation of conservative Muslims with moderate Muslims, and of all Muslims with largely secular western host communities?
Must the Wahhabi-inspired racism-provoking self-segregation and ambivalent or supportive attitude towards Islamist terrorism fester on, or can this conflict between some UK Muslims and the host community be resolved?
Is reformation the answer?
The future for Islam in the West
Reformation: a double-edged sword
Some Muslim critics of conservative Islam call for reform. The Christian Reformation began 1,500 years after the start of Christianity. Today, 1,400 years after the start of Islam, perhaps a Muslim reformation is due.
However, reform is a double-edged sword. One edge is extremism. Salafism itself, the extremist puritanical source of the racism-provoking behaviour of some UK Muslims, is a reform movement; and the Christian Reformation quickly became mired in extremism.
Uber-reformer Martin Luther started out well (by opposing the corrupt Roman Catholic church and by translating the bible from Latin into German), but then became a zealous anti-Jewish extremist whose views later contributed to the Nazi Holocaust.
Despite its founder’s racist extremism the Reformation was mainly good for society in general. It ended the political power of the church and paved the way for the age of reason and Enlightenment, leading to our modern secular liberal democracy.
The Reformation was also, arguably, good for believers, insisting that the Bible was the only source of Christian authority, and that the church should be a community of the faithful rather than a priest-led hierarchy.
However, in the course of achieving these worthy outcomes, the Reformation caused a massive amount of collateral damage over hundreds of years. If Islam is to reform itself, perhaps it could learn from Christianity’s mistakes.
The future for Islam in the West
A post-Enlightenment respectful suggestion
In the meantime, as a grateful beneficiary of the 18th-century European age of Enlightenment, I offer this unsolicited but respectful suggestion to all western Muslims: lighten up!
Keep the religion and lifestyle, if you want, but don’t make it any more separate than it needs to be. Enjoy the post-Enlightenment western freedom and hard-won democracy. Democracy is the worst form of government, they say, except for all the others – including theocracy.
A 2016 opinion poll 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.
Racism-provoking mass migration
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 three million EU citizens 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 2016 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, Brexit and 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.
The 2018 survey of attitudes to immigration, the National Conversation on Immigration – in which almost 20,000 people took part – found that most people wanted EU migration to be better managed.
140,000 EU nationals successfully applied for UK residence in 2016, twice the number in 2015. It was predicted that at least 500,000 more east Europeans would come to the UK over the following two years before we were due to leave the EU. When we leave, 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.
Racism-provoking mass migration
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 large amounts of money to parasitic migration brokers 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, Sweden or the UK.
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 was 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.
This fear has resulted in the increasing popularity of far-right, racist, populist and nationalist groups and political parties in mainland Europe.
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. (For fictional inspiration, consider Star Trek’s United Earth government, which ended poverty, disease and war within fifty years.)
(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 for the threatened west is 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 anti-Islamist western Muslim 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?
In this post, I’ve tried to understand the origin of racism, the reasons for its current prevalence, and the consequences of indulging it.
Racism has been nicely defined as prejudice plus power (meaning institutional power, not personal power). Racism deniers regularly appear on comments forums portraying anti-racism as ‘reverse racism’, that is, anti-white racism. This is despicable and deliberate dishonesty. Here in the white-run West, racist white-on-black bullying, and the power imbalance that defines it, exists – and persists.
There are no different human races – just human populations with differences that – apart from single-gene disorders – are superficial, and becoming increasingly blurred. Perhaps for lack of a better word, however, the word ‘race’ is still in frequent use in non-racist media, by both white and black writers and speakers.
And there is such a thing – albeit misnamed – as racism. Those of us who wish to overcome the thing misnamed as racism 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 by colonialists and nationalists, 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 Holocaust, 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 Holocaust 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 (or as a friendly in-group reappropriation, as in the use of the ‘n’ word by US blacks). But to hear a white person insultingly or aggressively call you ‘Paki’ because of your brown skin must be very hurtful. Sadly, such casual cruelty is a consequence of 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 Islamophobia, and racist Islamophobia 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 economic policy in destination countries, and by deep-rooted inequity and insecurity in the countries of origin. It’ll continue as long as the world is a place where policy makers treat people as fodder, and where people feel that they need to leave home to find a better life.
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.
If you have racist feelings, you instinctively try to justify or explain them. Human minds have evolved to analyse patterns. Most well educated liberals can find no justification, so they deny their racist feelings. Many less well educated conservatives can find justification – in populist nationalism or pseudo-science. So they indulge their racist feelings. Thus racism can spread as an ‘idea’ or ‘belief’. Definitions of racism universally describe it – wrongly – as a belief. It’s not a genuine belief – it’s a twisted modern version of a redundant instinct dressed up as a belief.
We’re social animals, dependent on our group, and an anti-stranger instinct probably evolved to protect our group from communicable disease. As for colour prejudice, it’s unlikely that our ancestors encountered different populations, so it’s unlikely that we could have evolved to be racist as such. Exposure to different populatons is a relatively recent occurrence in human history. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that our propensity for racism is built on the scaffolding of an anti-stranger instinct. Perhaps the different appearance of human populations emphasises and revives the underlying instinct. Hence colour prejudice.
Presumably, the redundant instinct survived because it was relatively harmless, but its modern extension, racism, isn’t harmless. If racism threatens our survival, then its instinctive foundation might eventually be removed by evolution. But in the meantime, we have to deal with it.
So… if we acknowledge racism’s instinctive nature, we can put the whole thing, instinct and superstructure, in the bin with the other monsters from the id. Then we can live above it – in a great big melting pot. 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.
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, surprisingly 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) was opposed. 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]
(I like Neuberg’s blithely split infinitives.)
Zahia Smail Salhi (professor of modern Arabic studies, University of Manchester, UK) said, ‘Very interesting and interested!!’.
Professor Melissa McDonald (principle investigator of the personality and evolutionary psychology lab at Oakland University in Michigan, 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’.
Professor Neal Curtis (head of media and communication, University of Auckland, New Zealand) has written an excellent article on the racist suspension of rights common to both US ‘kill-box’ drone strikes and the killing of innocent black men by US police. He said, ‘I tend to agree with most of what you say‘. However, Professor Curtis pointed out that my argument for universal colour prejuduce is weakened by the lack of social dominance power relationships in black-on-black shadism.
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 Canadian charitable educational website CurioCity.
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 USA, 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.
A 2017 Nature Human Behaviour paper, Relating pattern deviancy aversion to stigma and prejudice by Anton Gollwitzer and others of Yale University showed that aversion towards non-social pattern deviancy (for example, a row of triangles with one triangle out of line) predicted aversion towards ‘socially deviant’ people such as black induviduals in children as young as six. The effect crossed cultures (USA and China), and was ‘of a moderately large magnitude’.
(The research as described in the journal’s abstract – it costs $99 to read the rest – begs some questions: why were black people classed as ‘socially deviant’? Did that mean deviant from a white norm? Were all the subjects non-black?)
The paper didn’t address the possible evolutionary aspect, but it seems to me that this might be a means by which evolved prejudice develops in an individual.
Interesting stuff! Clearly, 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 from this academic field should beware: 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.
Equally fascinating stuff. 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.
– Criticism of evolutionary psychology
– Human taxonomy
– Slavery: post-emancipation ‘apprenticeship’
– FGM: pseudo-medico-justification
– Mass immigration and the USA
– Economic pressure
– The power of language
– Genes or morphic resonance?
– Therapy for instinctive racism
– Or was God an astronaut?
Criticism of evolutionary psychology
I was surprised to learn that the the theoretical approach of evolutionary psychology (which I’ll abbreviate hereon in as ‘EP‘) has generated substantial controversy and criticism.
Perhaps sharing that critical viewpoint, one branch of mainstream US psychology apparently ignores the field of EP. In 2018, the US peer-reviewed journal of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), Current Directions in Psychological Science, published A Special Issue on Racism edited by Jennifer Richeson of Yale University, addressing the nature of racism, how it affects individual cognition and health, and how best to combat it. As far as I can see, there’s no mention of EP.
The APS seems to prefer the concept of cultural psychology – how cultures shape psychological processes. I asked Professor Richeson about this. An automated reply said she was on sabbatical until December 2018, and might not reply before then.
The APS is a 1988 breakaway from the larger American Psychological Association (APA), founded in 1892. APA journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, edited by Catherine Salmon of the University of Redlands, California, is said by Wikipedia to address ‘the study of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, with an emphasis on work that integrates evolutionary theory with other approaches and perspectives from across the behavioral sciences’. I’ve asked Dr Salmon about any differences there may be between the APS and the APA with regard to EP.
Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences is published by the APA but is actually the flagship journal of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS), founded in 2007 as a community for all interested in EP. I asked eminent evolutionary psychologist and NEEPS co-founder Glenn Geher of the State University of New York at New Paltz if he could shed some light on the status of this field.
Professor Geher replied to say that the fundamental problem is that ‘many feminists believe that the premises of evolutionary psychology are incongruous with a feminist agenda‘.
I suppose applying a form of scientific determinism to how women behave and think was asking for trouble in the age of feminism. However, mate-selection and its associated behaviour is central to evolution. It had to be central to EP studies.
It’s ironic that feminists are prominent opponents of EP, given that the landmark feminist slogan, ‘all men are rapists‘, relies on genetic determinism.
Rape, like racism, might be genetically determined, but that doesn’t make it alright. EP studies modules of evolved behaviour, but they don’t amount to a mechanistic explanation of human behaviour. Humans aren’t the sum of their instincts. Our behaviour is the result of complex, holistic and chaotic systems. We’re far from understanding ourselves. Real-life human behaviour involves thought, language, reason, imagination, desire, conscience, morality, faith and free will, aspects of human mentality which transcend their evolved origins, and may never be fully understood by science.
According to Wikipedia, this disagreement over EP has lasted for two decades, and has got quite heated. An Amazon synopsis of a book referenced in Wikipedia’s article describes the conflict as a ‘hornet’s nest of claims and counterclaims, moral concerns, metaphysical beliefs, political convictions, strawmen, red herrings, and gossip‘.
Hilary and Steven Rose, editors of Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology say that EP relies on ‘shaky empirical evidence, flawed premises, and unexamined political presuppositions.’
Robert Kurzban (see above) reviewed the Roses’ book. His review, Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned, describes opponents of EP as ‘filled with self-righteous rage, smug dismissals, and unremitting invective‘ and ‘scoundrels who would through innuendo, mischaracterization, and yes, even outright dishonesty, shame and dishonor a foe they little understand, and therefore fear’.
I’ve argued that racism is an instinct. That puts me on the side of EP. But there’s no need for sides. Its obvious that human behaviour, like that of all animals, is to a large extent genetically determined. (However, the process of implementation isn’t understood. See my footnote on Rupert Sheldrake and morphic resonance.)
Its also obvious that behaviour is conditioned by culture.
The conflict over EP is pathetic. There should be a truce.
Homo is is the only surviving genus of the clade (or subtribe) Hominina, a member of the tribe Hominini, the only other surviving member of which is Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos). Hominini is a tribe of the subfamily Homininae, the only other surviving member of which is the Gorillini tribe (gorillas). The Homininae subfamily is a member of the Hominidae family, popularly known as the great apes, which includes orangutans.
(However, this traditional method of grouping life forms is apparently disputed by – amongst others – proponents of the phylogenetic nomenclature method.)
Slavery: post-emancipation ‘apprenticeship’
In a 2018 in-depth UK Guardian article, When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity, US history professor Kris Manjapra wrote:
‘In addition to money, slave owners received another form of compensation: the guaranteed free labour of blacks on plantations for a period of years after emancipation. The enslaved were thus forced to pay reverse reparations to their oppressors. At the stroke of midnight on 1 August 1834, the enslaved were freed from the legal category of slavery – and instantly plunged into a new institution, called “apprenticeship”.
‘The arrangement was initially to last for 12 years, but was ultimately shortened to four. During this period of apprenticeship, Britain declared it would teach blacks how to use their freedom responsibly, and would train them out of their natural state of savagery. But this training involved continued unpaid labour for the same masters on the very same plantations on which they had worked the day before.
‘In some ways, the “apprenticeship” years were arguably even more brutal than what had preceded them. With the Slavery Abolition Act, the duty to punish former slaves now shifted from individual slave owners to officers of the state. A state-funded, 100-person corps of police, jailers and enforcers was hired in Britain and sent to the plantation colonies. They were called the “stipendiary magistrates”. If apprentices were too slow in drawing water, or in cutting cane, or in washing linens, or if they took Saturdays off, their masters could have them punished by these magistrates.
‘Punishments were doled out according to a standardised formula, and often involved the most “modern” punishment device of those times: the treadmill. This torture device, which was supposed to inculcate a work ethic, was a huge turning wheel with thick, splintering wooden slats. Apprentices accused of laziness – what slave owners called the “negro disease” – were hung by their hands from a plank and forced to “dance” the treadmill barefoot, often for hours. If they fell or lost their step, they would be battered on their chest, feet and shins by the wooden planks. The punishment was often combined with whippings.
‘The treadmill was used more during the apprenticeship period than it ever was under slavery, precisely because it was said to be a scientific, measurable and modern form of disciplinary re-education, in line with bureaucratic oversight. One apprentice, James Williams, in an account of his life published in 1837, recalled he was punished much more after 1834 than before. Indeed, it is likely that slave-owners sweated their labour under apprenticeship, in order to squeeze out the last ounces of unpaid labour before full emancipation finally came in 1838.’
Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been condemned by the British Council of Muslims as un-Islamic. However, FGM is promoted on Salafi Islamic websites.
‘Medical benefits of female circumcision
‘Circumcision is prescribed for both males and females… circumcision of women is mustahabb
[recommended, but not essential; fulfilment of which is rewarded].
‘There are reports in the Sunnah which indicate that circumcision for women is prescribed in Islam.
‘Female circumcision has not been prescribed for no reason, rather there is wisdom behind it and it brings many benefits.’
‘Mentioning some of these benefits, Dr Haamid al-Ghawaabi* says:
‘The secretions of the labia minora accumulate in uncircumcised women and turn rancid, so they develop an unpleasant odour which may lead to infections of the vagina or urethra. I have seen many cases of sickness caused by the lack of circumcision.
‘Circumcision reduces excessive sensitivity of the clitoris which may cause it to increase in size to 3 centimeters when aroused, which is very annoying to the husband, especially at the time of intercourse.
‘Another benefit of circumcision is that it prevents stimulation of the clitoris which makes it grow large in such a manner that it causes pain.
‘Circumcision prevents spasms of the clitoris which are a kind of inflammation.
‘Circumcision reduces excessive sexual desire.’
Munajjid goes on to quote from an article by ‘female gynaecologist Sitt al-Banaat’*, ‘Female circumcision from a health point of view’:
‘For us in the Muslim world female circumcision is, above all else, obedience to Islam, which means acting in accordance with the fitrah and following the Sunnah which encourages it.
‘It [female ‘circumcision’] takes away excessive libido from women.
‘It prevents unpleasant odours which result from foul secretions beneath the prepuce.
‘It reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections
‘It reduces the incidence of infections of the reproductive system.
* I haven’t been able to find credentials for either of these doctors. However, the publication referred to, ‘Female circumcision from a health point of view‘ can be opened from here. It apparently recommends removal of the clitoris hood, or prepuce. This procedure is FGM type 1a, according to classification by the World Health Organisation.
Mass immigration and the USA
Apart from the forced migration of slaves, and slavery’s legacy, 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, racism and colourism – whatever the deeper cause – are 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.
(My unsolicited post-Enlightenment advice to all western Muslims to lighten up is a mischievous homonym. The phrase refers, of course, to lightness in weight – cultural weight in that case.)
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 a prehistoric mature matriarchy – 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.
In any case, black is beautiful.
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 speech 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 once upon a time, dear reader, 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. Thanks. Anyway, we survived, and we all lived happily(ish) ever after.
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!
Imagine by John Lennon
You may say he’s a hypocrite, but he’s not the only one – and you can’t necessarily judge the art by the life. A fabulously beautiful – if a bit cheesy – song.
Copyright 1971, Northern Songs. Lyrics quoted without permission.
Please feel free to comment… 😨