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The Stunning Evolution of Racism and Racial Tolerance

Let’s look at the evolution of racism and racial tolerance from an open, understanding perspective. We’ll attempt not to condemn racism but see it simply as a cultural phenomenon, making use of the latest insights into the evolution of racism.

If you’re reading this, it is likely you live in a world where racial tolerance is the norm. If so, you’ll see this racial tolerance in yourself, the news sources you use to stay informed, your friendship groups and your colleagues.

But though we take this to be the default stance, the only possible moral view, this is by no means a given. Many areas of the world are still fundamentally racist, and only in the most advanced countries do minority groups enjoy freedom, as we’ll see.

Key Conclusions

Let’s quickly summarise my views in this article:

  • racism is a natural, normal, all-too-human phenomenon,
  • lke bacteria in a Petri dish, racism appears under certain conditions and dies out under others,
  • our background radically shapes our level of racial tolerance,
  • the modern West is at the forefront of the evolution and erradication of racism.

Let’s look at the state of racism in the modern West.

The Current State of Racial Tolerance

When we are racially tolerant, our circle of concern is no longer limited to our own culture or chosen group – it is no longer an ethnocentric definition. We show tolerance and care to people of different creeds, nationalities and cultures – of different races. We have a worldcentric sensibility.

I maintain that nowadays we actually go beyond simple racial tolerance and into anti-racism. We now actively flush out racism: we are, in a sense, anti-racist.

“Show racism the red card” is an important movement in mainstream sport that puts anti-racism front and centre in our concern, to the eyes of millions of viewers across the world. News agencies rapidly draw attention to racial discrimination, even if it’s often pretty mild compared to what happens in other areas of the world. Left-leaning citizens frown upon Nationalist parties for their non-inclusive policies. We have laws to ensure diversity in the workforce.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which appeared in reaction to US hate crime, was a testament to just how intolerable racism has become, at least to some segments of the population. It was not a campaign of tolerance, but a campaign of anti-racism.

These trends signify a momentous leap forward in our moral concern. The very fact we have made great strides in tolerance shows we are moving in the right direction. We’re moving towards a world where we aren’t pigeonholed due to race, where race isn’t a cause for hatred and oppression but for celebration, and where we can love and cherish our uniqueness.

The Dark Side of Anti-Racism

We’re moving forward at an incredible pace. Taking a strong stance on racism is ultimately fruitful, but this ongoing battle has some troubling elements.

Baked into the anti-racism we see today is a lack of understanding of racism and racist people. Often we hate racists, which is the same hate racists possess but expressed in a different form and with a different target.

We’re also taking our multicultural outlook for granted, imagining that it were somehow a default human tendency, and bemoaning the apparent corruptness of the modern world with its systematic racism and rotten patriarchy.

This betrays a lack of empathy and understanding for the basic phenomenon of racism. We assume that racism is simply a sign of perversion and evil.

The Evolution of Racism and Morals

Let’s be clear that anti-racism is very much a new phenomenon, as mentioned. Our species, Homo Sapiens, first appeared in West Africa around 200,000 years ago, and only in the last few hundred years of that history has systematic tolerance appeared. Only in 1858 (163 years ago) did Abraham Lincoln argue for the extension of the American Declaration of Independence to include blacks.

The laws are even more revealing. In the UK, the Race Relations Act outlawed “discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in 1965. In the US, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

These dates provide us a frame in which we can more clearly see racial tolerance as an emergent phenomenon, not as the default. Notice how recent they are.

Until then, much of human history was plagued by tribal and ethnic war. People attempting to erradicate other groups and take over their land, all to propagate their own existence. Etched into all cultures is the belief in hegemony.

In other words, racism has absolutely dominated human history, across the globe. Only now are we erradicating it. Were we simply evil and ignorant for tens of thousands of years?

Racial Tolerance is an Emergent

Let’s give racial tolerance some socioeconomic context.

Data from the World Values Survey demonstrates a strong connection between the income of a country and its values.

In the survey, all high-income countries rank highly in a number of dimensions related to freedom and liberty, while all low-income countries rank poorly in the same dimensions. One of these dimensions is racial tolerance.

The World Values Survey also tells us that anti-racism is only present to a significant degree in certain countries: the countries with the highest GDP, highest life expectancy and low infant mortality.

So not only has racial tolerance only existed for the last four to five hundred years, but only in certain parts of the globe. There are many areas where it is non-existent.

We can’t say it’s unnatural to be racist. In a sense, anti-racism is unnatural. It is a highly elitist position only reached recently by a relatively small amount of human beings in the most privileged parts of the world, and only in modern times.

We also can’t say we’re regressing from an innocent state where we lived in harmony with nature and with one another. To do so would be to take the very best of our modern life and project it back into the pre-civilised past, when we imagine there were no oppressive power structures and therefore no racism.

Nor can we claim that in the West we have a fundamentally broken, racist, dystopian society, a view commonly held by Leftists and idealists. When we look at the data, we see that Western countries are on the leading edge of moral evolution.

Robert Ingelhart on Racial Tolerance

Robert Ingelhart’s analysis provides an excellent perspective on how important our environment is to our degree of tolerance.

He claims that racial tolerance is an emergent phenomenon provoked by high levels of existential security. Ingelhart says:

“For most of history, survival was insecure, with populations rising to meet the food supply and then being held constant by starvation, disease and violence. Under these conditions, societies emphasised strong in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, rejection of outsiders, and obedience to strong leaders. For under extreme scarcity, xenophobia is realistic: if there is just enough land to support one tribe and another tribe tries to claim it, survival becomes a zero-sum struggle between Us and Them.”

He also claims:

“There is a huge difference between growing up knowing that survival is insecure, and growing up taking survival for granted. For most of history survival has been precarious, and survival is such a basic goal that it dominates people’s life strategies, influencing almost every other aspect of their lives. But in recent decades an increasing share of the world’s population has grown up assuming that they will not starve, and in societies where survival is taken for granted, major changes are occurring in job motivations, religion, politics, sexual behaviour and how children are raised.”

This is a crucial contribution to our understanding of racism. It explains why it has predominated throughout human history, and why it still does in Third-world countries and among segments of high-income societies, without blaming or ridiculing it.

Tolerance of other races is a luxury that only those who have existential security can enjoy.

The Watershed Moment: Tolerance in the 60s

Ingelhart also gives wonderful insight into the multicultural explosion of the hippie era, fundamentally seeing it as an explosion of tolerant values, brought

the student protests in the US in the 1960s to the life conditions under which those student protesters had grown up: after the Second World War, life conditions significantly improved, and for the first time a birth cohort grew up in conditions of relative existential security. This led them to questioning the rigid and divisive system of older generations, who had grown up in very different conditions. 

“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” was the maxim of the student protesters. While their values were certainly an improvement on those of their parents and grandparents – they were more inclusive, more whole, more complex.

What they failed to take into account, and what most people still fail to take into account, is that holding such values in the existential conditions faced by their elders is completely natural, and that their own values were largely a result of their privileged upbringing. The same is true for all of us who are tolerant or anti-racist today.

Besides helping us to understand people who are tolerant, Ingelhart’s stark conclusion calls us to pursue a deeper understanding of racists and their life conditions. It calls us not to label perpetrators of racist attacks as “evil”, but rather ask how racists fundamentally see life, and why.

If Ingelhart’s claims are a good indicator of the reasons behind racism, we can expect the person to fundamentally doubt their existential security. They have yet to establish a sense of security, and in their yearning for that security place a large part of their identity in their chosen group (be it their nation, their religion, or any other binding group identity).

Besides, they may simply lack the capacity to grow into worldcentric levels of evolution, regardless of their life conditions.

Your Background

If you consider yourself worldcentric, even anti-racist, celebrate your privelege. You were born in the right country in the right period of human history: it’s truly a luxury, and you’ve reached a level in your evolution that for millennia was simply inaccessible to human beings.

If you consider racists to be crazy and evil, in a sense you’re right: given the life conditions you have, your conclusions may well be right and appropriate and you may have no need to be racist. Being racist would likely be detrimental to you, even if in doing so you would be expressing your core values.

While you have a piece of the truth, and while your view is a sign of your growth and our species’ growth, realise that if you’d been born somwehere else at some other time, it’s highly probable you’d be fundamentally racist. If you’d been raised in a different neighbourhood, you also may now be fundamentally racist.

And if our life conditions in the West start to go downhill, you yourself may turn towards more ethnocentric, racist views, simply because your survival will be more precarious than in better living conditions. We have seen that during periods of economic decline, even in high-income countries, racist views become more prevalent.

Psychology of The Evolution of Racism

“when one form of being is more congruent with the realities of existence, then it is the better form of living for those realities… when one form of existence ceases to be functional for the realities of existence then some other form, either higher or lower in the hierarchy, is the better form of living.”

Clare graves

The very fact we condemn racism today is actually a sign of the evolution of racism and morals. It is also a sign that factions of society have been left behind and have not experienced the same evolution of those with higher values, and the existence of various factions which each valiantly defend their own values is partly a result of this mismatch in life conditions.

A final critique is that the view that racism is evil and corrupt fundamentally lacks the understanding and empathy necessary to see racists as they are and to understand their point of view, and ignores the fact that care is not just limited to being tolerant of other races while not tolerating people who don’t do so. The anti-racism we see today is another form of intolerance. Granted, it is much more tolerant than the racism it condemns, but it still has built-in intolerance.

From a Spiral Dynamics perspective, racial tolerance is a component of the Orange and Green vMEMEs, but the tolerance is not yet self-reflective: these two vMEMEs don’t provide us with enough perspective to see the evolution of our values in a historical and cultural context.

This only becomes available at Yellow. As Beck and Cowan put it: “Yellow understands the uniqueness of the conceptual and personal worlds each of the previous vMEMEs creates.” This includes people holding Stage Blue values. This evolution of tolerance to include those often considered evil by modern standards is yet another leap forward and eclipses the leap we take into racial tolerance with the development of the Orange and Green value systems.

Let’s Broaden Our View: See The Evolution of Racism

If we can truly question why we are tolerant, taking into account our upbringing and its historical context, our socioeconomic conditions and our own psychological potential, as well as cultivating an appreciation of how those individuals and countries who aren’t as tolerant as we are experience all of those factors, we can then begin to move into the tolerance found at Yellow.

We can see that our values are part of the Great Updraft: life moving towards greater, more expansive, fuller expressions, and see that those people we habitually condemn are part of the evolution of racism and grant them the right to be who they are. That doesn’t mean we don’t work to improve racial tolerance. It means we do it armed with a bigger, wider, more inclusive perspective.

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