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.

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