Racial Inequality and Boundaries of Analysis

Robinson, Keegan | November 9, 2017 | Leave a Comment


We’re all familiar with the popular understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, or at least the popular, progressive understanding. You might also be aware of the populace that thinks the group is composed of Muslim terrorists trying to institute Sharia Law, but hopefully you’ve seen past that out-group-biased, tribalist rhetoric to see BLM for what it truly is—a grassroots social justice movement that aims at combating racial inequality in the United States. Evolutionarily speaking, this movement is relatively unique among humans seeing as it addresses systematic issues rather than letting our hyperactive agency (our tendency to ascribe the existence of events to agents/actors) take the wheel and superimposing reductionist, cause-and-effect explanations onto racial incidents. This wider boundary of analysis—moving beyond the individual and into the institutional—naturally leads to more complex “solutions” in addressing racial inequalities. Rather than “isolated incidents,” racial shootings by cops become part of a larger, prejudiced criminal justice system, exacerbated by a societal fear of Black men. To consider another issue from this perspective, income inequality has little to do with individual “effort” but is instead due to complex patterns of unequal education and opportunity early in life that spiral into reinforcing feedback loops of poverty and crime. With this understanding, most radical solutions focus on dismantling current systems and putting new ones in their place while more moderate (realistic?) solutions settle for working within “the system” and making gradual change through legislation and activism. Though laudable, I argue that the current boundaries of analysis in examining racial injustice do not extend far enough and are ultimately inadequate in the true pursuit of intersectional equality (equality among all related systems of oppression and domination).

A deep-time analysis, utilizing a frame of reference with which we can look beyond recent history and consider our existence on a millennia-based scale, reveals that the real roots of our society are not ones of racial superiority from a few hundred years ago, but those of human superiority which began in the fertile crescent about 12,000 years ago. The implementation of totalitarian agriculture by small-tribe former-hunter-gatherers led to an entirely new (and incredibly labor-intensive) way of life along with the adoption of a whole slew of teleological concepts. Chief among those, to borrow an idea from Daniel Quinn, is the central mythology of our contemporary society: that the world was made for humans and humans were made to conquer and rule it. And if you doubt the existence of this common cultural myth (just as fantastical and unfounded as belief in Thor’s control of lighting or Moses’ parting of the Red Sea), you need look no further than the world around you to prove its validity. From the monetization of Earth’s materials as “natural resources” to the blatant disregard of the species that we share this planet with, humanity is always seen as the be-all-and-end-all (give it a century and this sentiment may ring truer than any of us care to admit).

Side note: I think it’s telling that, in writing this essay, I struggled to find a way to describe our natural resources without using the word “resources”. I also think it’s telling that you probably didn’t have a problem hearing me say “our natural resources” in the last sentence—who gave us the world?

Additionally, this (pre)historical analysis reveals that, before agriculture, humans were an intensely egalitarian species (in terms of consumption—there have always been status differences). We often lament that humans are doomed to fight forever, always vying for a larger slice of “the pie” without ever considering that (at least within our own tribes) we lived for literally thousands of years in near perfect equality. It was only through the dawn of agriculture and the creation of surplus that hierarchy and “income” inequality arose. This is not to say that agriculture is necessarily a prerequisite to hierarchy, but rather that agriculture begets surplus, which naturally creates hierarchical structure (Who gets the most access to that surplus energy? Who must guard it? What new roles does it create?).

Now, at this point you may be asking yourself: what the hell does this have to do with racial inequality in the US? This is a completely valid question and not an unexpected reaction seeing as it is our societal tendency to disregard pre-agriculture lifestyles (after all, pre-agriculture isn’t even a part of history, it’s prehistory). Although this analysis may seem removed from current cultural problems, bear with me. In order to identify our most deep-set prejudices we must acknowledge our deep-time roots.

Where this ties into BLM is through the understanding that most social justice movements, no matter how intersectional they may be, are limited by a boundary that only includes modern humans and therefore often disregard privileges that some may not recognize they benefit from: human privilege, American privilege, carbon-pulse privilege, to name a few. What a wider boundary lends to the fight for racial equality is an understanding that the system that needs to be overthrown is not governmental or institutional, it’s cultural. So long as we work and live within the constraints of a society that is maintained only through the subjugation of other species and destruction of the biosphere in pursuit of endless growth, true egalitarianism (the ultimate goal of the racial justice movement) is impossible. This perspective naturally complicates solutions as instituting such an extreme ideological shift is far from simple, but is ultimately necessary in the true pursuit of equality.

Now, I recognize that this perspective comes from a place of privilege. As a White American, I’m able to worry about the environment and future generations without having to deal with daily threats to my immediate wellbeing. However, as a species, we also have a grave tendency to prioritize the present over the future, operating with incredibly steep discount rates. What’s worse is that those most affected by racial injustice, who are cognitively more overloaded, experience even harsher time biases and are disproportionately selected to favor lesser present returns over future stability. That is to say, our predicament is no more our fault than it is the fault of the delusional, evolved minds that reside in our skulls…but it is our responsibility. There will always be worthy causes that ignore the past and obscure the future. Our challenge is to recognize that, although certain issues may seem crucial in the pursuit of human-betterment, ultimately, it won’t matter if Earth’s gravestone reads: “They achieved racial equality.”

Keegan is an eighteen-year-old Minneapolis high school senior currently in his second year as a PSEO student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He’s pretty scared about the direction the Earth is heading in and hopes to do his part in ensuring the long-term survival of the planet as a healthy and safe space for all species.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/boundaries-analysis/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Justin Beck

    Nice work. I couldn’t write like that when I was 18.

  • Dana Visalli

    Delightfully prescient essay, sounds like perhaps you had a course in Big History, or as it is otherwise known, Evolution. Also appreciate Andrew’s comments, tho I sometimes think of Eckhart as Eckhart Trolle, as he is always trolling for money.
    Personally I’m sure the phenomenon of hierarchy predates agriculture; for example I have read that our beloved Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe had 1000 horses. Why? Because he was the chief. The problem IMHO is that we are starved for identity, so if you have a thousand horses you must really be somebody. Or check out the palaces of the Saudis & other billionaires.
    Honesty is quite helpful; as Andrew noted, ‘I am aware I am racist.’ Me too. Or how about R.D. Laing’s ‘I never get what I want, I never want what I get.’ Me too. Not to overlook fear of death and that ultimate evidence of lack of self-importance. It’s a tough assignment, being human.

  • Andrew Gaines

    Hi Keegan – well done! An excellent analysis!

    The next question is: how can we act on this?

    In The Chalice and the
    Blade futurist Riane Eisler makes the useful distinction between
    partnership-respect relating and domination-control relating. Racism and economic
    exploitation, are aspects of domination-control relating, of course.

    In contrast, partnership-respect relating embodies values
    that I think you share. There are ways to do this every level from childrearing
    to global governance. My article Understanding
    All System Change goes into this (you can access it through the Resources
    section of http://www.InspiringTransition.net).

    The fate of the world, literally, depends on partnership-respect
    relating (operating for individual and community well-being) setting the tone
    our global culture. Anything we can do individually to contribute to this
    aspect of social evolution is valuable.

    Having been raised in America as a privileged white person, I
    notice that I am a racist. I can feel prejudicial/judgmental attitudes within
    me. However, I choose to not act on these feelings. Indeed, in 1971 I spent a
    summer in Mississippi working on the Charles Evers campaign. Charles Evers was
    the first black person to run for governor since Reconstruction.

    Although this was past the height of the civil rights era, I
    did not know whether it would be safe for me to go to Mississippi or not. I
    mentally accepted that I was willing to die rather than be limited by my fear. I
    went without fear. Doubtless the white people in Holly Springs Mississippi,
    where I stayed with the family of the black candidate for sheriff, knew who I
    was and why I was there. They also knew that I was no threat to them; Evers did not come close to winning. I had no problems.

    The capacity to observe our own reactions and make choices
    is very valuable capacity. In this regard I recommend Eckardt Tolle’s The Power of Now.