This is your brain on racism: Inside the mind of modern bigotry

tags: racism

Excerpted from “The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists” (Yale University Press) by Stephen Eric Bronner.

Karl Marx once quipped that “violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.” Just as surely, however, prejudice is the midwife of violence. The bigot embraced this view from the start. Hatred of the Jews goes back to Egypt and Babylonia. Contempt for what the Greeks considered the “barbarian”—whoever was not of Greece—existed even at the height of the classical period. And Homer already understood the struggles of the outcast and the stranger. What today might be termed ethnic or racial conflicts between empires, religions, tribes, and clans have always shaped the historical landscape.

But there is a sense in which modernity created the bigot. Prior to the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, perfectly decent people simply accepted prevailing prejudices as a matter of course. They suffered no opprobrium. Even in early twentieth-century America, few people (other than the targets of prejudice) were especially bothered that major-league baseball admitted only whites, that the armed forces were segregated, that rape and incest were barely mentioned, and that the white male was the standard by which intelligence was judged. The bigot of today, in recalling the jokes and everyday humiliations that these groups endured, seeks to re-create the normality of prejudice. That subaltern groups have proven so successful in resisting his project only intensifies his frustration.

Modernity, with its roots in the European Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions that extended from 1688 to 1789, runs counter to the institutions and beliefs that the bigot holds dear. Its new capitalist production process substitutes exploitation for his hatred. It has little use for established prejudices, revealed truths, or sacred traditions. And its commitment to principles like the liberal rule of law and toleration, republican institutions, and universal rights would inspire attempts by women, people of color, religious minorities, and gays to constrict the arbitrary exercise of authority by church and state.

Modernity liberated the powers of humanity; it generated the idea that people could shape their own fates. This is very different from the bigot’s assumption that biology or anatomy is destiny. Modernity relies on the growth of science, technology, and instrumental rationality. What was once taken on faith is now subject to criticism and what was once shrouded in myth and darkness now potentially becomes open to light. The urban and secular character of modernity, its fostering of pluralism and individualism, further militate against the bigot’s sensibility. He detests the modern notion of progress that is so intimately connected with what Max Weber termed “the disenchantment of the world.” ...

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