The practicalities of casual racism: within-class marriages, female property-rights, and being unpalatable
“Quit keeping us down, man”
The bad outcome of racism and prejudice is that you will have less opportunity to choose your quality of life (physical or emotional) due to a circumstance of birth.
The most blatant example is increased likelihood of death or severe bodily or emotional harm for being born a certain race or ethnicity; such as internment camps or mass incarceration.
And there are more subtle forms that can also become institutionalized and compound effects over time; less obvious, but sometimes as impactful; such as when my Dad says,
“You should think about dating Asian women; their values are more similar, and it will be less complicated.”
Typically you read intellectual behemoths arguing that institutions develop property inheritance incentives that create a less equal, and more prejudicial society.
It stuck with me, then, when I read Fukuyama claim the opposite for at least one society. He claims the UK advanced as a far more equal opportunity society in the 1000’s due to its particular institutionalized property inheritance structures.
While in most societies, capital and property were inherited by one or split between male heirs, due to the growing power of the Church, in Medieval England, family’s started bequeathing to Jesus. The Church, wanting more power, tried to take as much of it away from big patrimonial families as possible by splitting or reducing inheritance. As the story goes, they were a big part of legalizing property ownership by women in the UK (less money to be had by individual sons).
For better or worse, there is power in inheritance.
If I see someone eating alone, and I let my eyes linger instead of scanning by, I almost cry. My Dad, who has a wife, three kids, and a home in Seattle, has eaten far too many meals alone, having lived and worked nearly 20 years now hundreds of miles south in San Francisco, only commuting up every other weekend. I imagine him calling me from the food court he likes to go to sometimes, where he picks usually between pasta or teriyaki. I also imagine him not calling me, because he doesn’t want to bother me; instead he eats his pasta or teriyaki alone, hundreds of miles south of his family. And I imagine him feeling lonely and sad.
I’ve never asked him though. Maybe I’m the one that feels lonely and sad. I go to restaurants and eat alone too. When I do, I like to tell myself that its empowering; that I feel independent, and powerful. I am choosing to eat alone. There’s truth to that. There’s also truth to the comfort in companionship; with friends or with family.
On one hand I believe I have made some conscious choices, and eating alone is either one of them or the direct result of some others. On the other, I wonder if I’m just far too unpalatable.
Whatever reality may be, when I see someone eating alone, I want to sit down with them, and say: “Hey, I’m here. You’re not alone.”
There is a practicality to casual racism. If we want easy, effortless harmony, it can be a lot more efficient to be around likeminded others with similar values, backgrounds, and experiences.
If someone looks very different from you, they probably have a very different background, with very different values and experiences; they are likely less palatable, and it will probably take more effort to get along.
It is effortless and natural to be insular. In fact we have named the region of our brain the “insular cortex” which is associated with feelings of social and moral disgust. For instance, the insular cortex becomes more active when you think of some “other” group of people as cockroaches.
So when my Dad suggests I date Asian, or another parent suggests you marry within race, religion, or social class, there is some real, human, practical energy savings.
It is, however, also insular. And potentially quite impactful.
Net good or bad, we can judge for ourselves; but it is human. I sometimes hate the idea of scrapping together enough energy to meet strangers.
But along with energy savings, practical everyday racism also has similar long term institutional effects that more obvious racism has as well: it limits another’s opportunity to choose their quality of life due to inborn characteristics they did not choose (such as race or ethnicity).
It’s extremely unclear to me what the most fair or socially stable solutions to create more equal opportunity for quality of life are (for instance, I don’t believe getting rid of property ownership or inheritance altogether makes sense). But I do very much appreciate that everyone’s voices are getting louder, and it’s becoming more clear to me how I have unknowingly participated in casual and outright racism and prejudice that has a greater negative impact on the world than I’d like my life to have.