Fighting Racism Starts in the Heart


Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King in 1965.

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

When we think of relations between Jews and African-Americans, we naturally think of our proudest moments. And we should.

Abraham Joshua Heschel marched side-by-side with Martin Luther King in 1965, helping America to repudiate the racist sins of its past. Jewish activists worked in segregated areas where they risked abuse, beating, and death to win equal rights for African-Americans. Even further back, Jews were central figures in the early decades of the NAACP and other organizations that opposed racism.

However, relations between Jews and African-Americans have not been all sunshine and flowers. Even apart from extremist organizations such as the Nation of Islam, black anti-Semitism has been a problem. In his book What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance, Murray Friedman recounts both the positive and negative sides of that history. A good companion volume, from a black perspective, is Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Friedman wrote that anti-Semitic incidents:

“… have taken place against a background of intensifying mutual recrimination, with charges of Jewish racism and paternalism on the one hand and countercharges of black anti-Semitism and ingratitude on the other.”

That reminded me of a matching passage in Steele’s book about his rage at the feeling of racism and paternalism (from all whites, not just Jews) that Friedman described:

“I had become terrified of the Faustian bargain waiting for me at the doorway to the left: we’ll throw you a bone like affirmative action if you’ll just let us reduce you to your race so we can take moral authority for ‘helping’ you. When they called you a n—– back in the days of segregation, at least they didn’t ask you to be grateful.”

Both books are excellent, but I’d like to address a broader question: Why is it so easy, often almost irresistible, for people in different groups to distrust each other?

To say that it’s because of Yetzer Hara doesn’t really explain it. It just says that we do bad things because we feel like doing bad things. Why do we feel that way?

In this case, at least part of the answer is clear. Whether it’s because of evolution or because God used some of the same design elements, we share our biological nature with lower animals.

Animals of the same species have the same biological “niche:” that is, they need the same kind of food, use the same kind of shelter, and of course, seek mates of their own species. For that reason, they tend to regard non-relatives of the same species as competitors who threaten their well-being.

Conversely, they tend to help and support their relatives, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives to protect them. Based on biologists’ field observation, there’s a formula to predict the probability that an animal will altruistically help another member of its own species:

c < r * b

where c is the survival cost to the altruistic animal (in risk, food, etc.), r is the percent of genes shared because of some family relationship, and b is the benefit to the recipient of the animal’s altruistic act.

How do animals distinguish relatives from non-relatives? They use four main criteria: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. Animals are inclined to help others if the others look like them, act like them, are already familiar, or are in a shared location.

Of course, we are not merely animals. We can think. We can distinguish right from wrong. But our perception of other people is biased by our animal instincts to cooperate with relatives and to feel hostile toward genetic competitors.

Does that mean racism is inevitable? No. But it requires sustained individual effort to defeat it. It cannot be defeated institutionally, once and for all. It must be confronted by each person, one at a time.

The good news is that because we can think, we unconsciously use non-biological cues to tell us who is a relative. For us, “appearance” isn’t just bodily appearance. Our instincts react to other cues that we can deliberately manipulate to increase social harmony. One experiment found that wearing team t-shirts had a stronger effect on people’s behavior than did the race of the people wearing the shirts.

That doesn’t mean the solution to racial tensions is to make everyone wear matching t-shirts. However, we know some of the factors that trigger racial hostility: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. By changing some of those factors, we can decrease racism significantly. And that’s good for everyone.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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