Since the most prevalent examples of racism today come from differences in skin color, we’ll start by explaining those differences. Let’s say you’re out in the sun all day and the next day you notice your skin is a darker color. What’s happened is your skin was damaged by higher frequency UV light. As a way to prevent further damage, your skin cells have allocated resources toward the production of a light absorbing protein called melanin. The more exposure you have to light, the more melanin your skin produces. Melanin is an energetically expensive protein to make so a lot of resources need to be allocated away from other functions.
As our ancestors migrated north out of Africa, they found environments with less direct sunlight. They could afford to reallocate resources away from melanin production with minimal negative side effects. In addition to lack of necessity to produce melanin, paleness was seen in many populations as an attractive trait. Those who had enough power to not have to be exposed to the sunlight, meaning they didn’t work in the fields, could now be more easily identified as higher class. Over time, and with the help of sexual selection, the population produced less melanin by default and their skin was much paler than the original black color.
Race is caused by nothing more than adaptations of our ancestors to different environments. Racism is caused by our natural tendencies to perceive and fear differences between people. Let’s explore that a little more.
You most likely grew up as a part of a family that mostly looked like you. You all probably had similar features and similar colored skin and you habituated that information as “normal.” When you come across something that defies your expectation of normal, your understanding of trends alerts you to the difference immediately. If you are unaware of why the difference exists, that uncertainty can cause fear leading to a fight or flight response. The Romans actually called left-handed people senestre which means “evil” because they were different from the normal right-handedness.
Scientists have found an interesting effect when we look at something that is just slightly off from “normal.” We have adapted a good sense of detecting when something is off. In fact, a feeling of disgust can be triggered from something that’s not quite normal as a means of protecting you from danger. If your food looks just off, it might be rotten. If your friend looks just off, they might be diseased. From the right perspective, it’s fascinating to see the disgust of people who can’t reconcile tiny differences. After all, race is merely caused by a protein in an organ that’s already mostly dead.
We all know the basic story: white people build ships and conquer the darker people with the mindset that they are a lesser species. The reason this happened is not because white people are better, they just lived in a highly competitive environment. If you’ve ever studied European history, you know that pretty much 80% of it consists of wars and disease. That environment spurred the innovation and production of much more advanced weapons as well as immunity to infectious diseases.
The indigenous people around the world did not stand a chance against the battle-hardened white man. Their ease of conquest, mixed with their religious ideology, led white people to believe that their god was true and that they were the “chosen ones” to rule the world and “save” the lesser people.
White people treated different looking humans as property, buying and selling them and putting them to work against their will. By the time the law instructed the fair treatment of all people, the institutionalization had already occurred.
The people in charge had been raised to believe that they were different and better. Recently enslaved people had no representation in the leadership to change the minds of racist leaders. Even worse, when our forefathers created a system where your social class can be earned, they forgot to set everyone back to zero! The white, land-owning Christian men were far, far ahead of everyone else and they wanted to keep it that way. We even call non-white people minorities even though they make up the majority of the world!
The social gap between whites and minorities continues today! The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was a huge advancement for non-white people but it did not fully succeed.
The institution came up with ways to maintain that gap. Minority schools receive significantly less funding than white schools. Many minorities were sectioned into ghettos where drugs and weapons were introduced to keep them from getting out. The media shows stories with minorities and dangerous activities to synapse those two ideas together. The War on Drugs gives police the opportunity to bother and arrest minorities for nonviolent crimes.
The education system also tends to habituate minority students to the idea of incarceration. Many minority students become accustomed to being sent to detention where they are treated as criminals that are less welcome in society than other students. If you treat a kid like a criminal for long enough, the kid is going to fulfill the role. Adding on top of it, if a kid only knows detention and prison, they are going to continue to behave in that way which means they will likely go back to prison after they are released!
Racism is seeing the differences between people and fearing those that are different than you. You are a human and a member of the first species to ever populate our entire planet! Living in that many different environments is bound to cause some unique adaptations. Yes, some of us have different colored skin, different shaped noses and eyes, different sized lips and ears but all these differences are insignificant in the grander picture. You are a human and you are conscious of that because of your brain and everyone has one of those. It is your brain, the decisions you make and the information that you learn, that defines you. Nothing else.