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

From Mel Gibson to Donald Sterling: What are the ingredients that fuel bigotry in contemporary America?

Topics: Books, Racism, Bigotry, Prejudice, Modernism, Marxism, Anti-Semitism, Editor's Picks, , ,

This is your brain on racism: Inside the mind of modern bigotryMel Gibson (Credit: AP/Richard Shotwell)

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.”

But the bigot deals with modernity as best he can, for example, by using the same scientific methods as his critics. Architects of the Nazi genocide used mathematical rationality and scientific techniques not merely to keep meticulous records of the prisoners sent to Auschwitz, or to construct the crematoria, but also to reduce corpses to their parts and to use them to create soap, cloth, and fertilizer. But Nazi science was ultimately used to legitimate irrational and unscientific claims. To engage in their genocide, the Nazis needed to assume that their victims were less than human and, in this vein, Kenan Malik was correct in noting that to suggest the infamous “final solution” was a product of “reason” is to “elevate the prejudices of the Third Reich to the status of scientific knowledge.”

That being said, the bigot has never felt entirely comfortable in employing science to support his prejudices. For example, although Mussolini and Hitler may have employed scientists who used the same physics and chemistry for producing military weapons as their counterparts elsewhere, in public, the dictators insisted on the existence of “Italian mathematics” and (in opposition to Einstein and his Jewish colleagues) “German physics.” The bigot dislikes universal concepts and objective criteria for making scientific judgments. He prefers giving his prejudices a scientific gloss by making reference to phrenology or by insisting on the primary importance of certain physical attributes, inherited traits, eugenics, and anthropological hierarchies. Genetics has a particular attraction for the bigot seeking to explain intelligence or creativity—though no evidence exists to justify any causal connection between biology and social accomplishment.

The bigot has always felt queasy about transforming the invisible into the visible, the ineffable into the discursive, and the unknown into the known. Observation and evidence, hypothesis and inference, confirmation and validation are thus selectively employed by him to justify what Cornel West has termed “the discursive exclusion” of those who are different and what they have to offer. Science requires an open society, and a liberal culture that allows the questioning of authority. But the bigot has no use for what the young Marx called “the ruthless critique of everything existing.” He is always primarily concerned with proving what he already thinks he knows. He insists that the answers to the problems of life have been given and he resents everything that challenges inherited wisdom, parochial prejudices, and what he considers the natural order of things. Thus he is uncertain what to make of capitalism.

Not so deep in his heart, the bigot is an opportunist. Other than his prejudices, he has no core beliefs. The bigot likes it when his interests are being served, when people of color are exploited, but he dislikes it when he feels disadvantaged. In principle he endorses inequality and the idea of competition. But only when he is on top or, better, believes he is on top. The problem arises when he finds himself on the bottom. Competition is good when it works for him. When it doesn’t, the bigot will insist that his competitors are cheating—and that they cheat because it is a trait of their ethnicity, nationality, or race. Jews conspire against him in ruling Wall Street, immigrants take away his jobs, affirmative action undermines his prospects, and unions and welfare programs have made his country soft.

Caught between fear of capitalists and contempt for workers, admiration for competition and principled dislike of socialism, the bigot vacillates. He imagines how family, neighborhood, and religious ties, in ostracizing the subaltern, have provided the infrastructure of a productive small-town community. He cannot grasp why the bourgeoisie would strip away the “sentimental veil” of the family and the ties that bind men to their “natural superiors.” He is aghast at how religious ecstasy can be drowned in the “icy waters of egotistical calculation,” a process that leaves no other nexus than “naked self interest” and “cash payment.” The bigot is both amazed and repelled by the cultural and material revolutions that have broken down “Chinese walls of tradition” so that “all that is solid melts into air. All that is sacred becomes profane, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions.”

The logic of capitalist accumulation baffles the bigot. He cannot comprehend how wealth is ever more surely concentrated in great corporate firms and the class divisions that are generated. He is unable to see that workers are dependent on capital because employment is dependent on investment. He also never draws implications from the fact that profit (not prejudice) spurs capitalist development. Today there are banks geared toward women’s interests, a black bourgeoisie, a gay consumer culture, and support among many firms for looser immigration policies. Jews, women, blacks, gays, immigrants, and members of other previously excluded groups have expanded the market and provided a pool of talent that can be fruitfully exploited. But solidarity among working people of different races, genders, and ethnicities is precisely what the bigot rejects. As a consequence, his prejudices serve as a drag on the system even while they fragment opposition to it. Thus he finds himself critical of capital and its liberal impulses but also (perhaps even more) critical of those socialists who contest its power.

Nowhere is this counter-revolutionary undertaking analyzed more trenchantly than in the historical works of Marx and Engels. Rarely noted is that in those works, for the first time, a general theory of the counter-revolution was articulated. Old symbols and myths are repackaged to confront the two dominant forms of thought associated with the two dominant classes that emerged with the modern production process: the liberalism of the revolutionary bourgeoisie and the socialism of an incipient industrial working class. According to this logic, precapitalist values and ideologies should appeal most to precapitalist classes like the aristocracy (or aristocratic pretenders), the petty bourgeoisie (or, in German, the Mittelstand), the peasantry, and even the notorious semi-criminal under-class (Lumpenproletariat), who are rooted in a community bolstered by religious and traditional values. And that is, indeed, the case. These classes historically served as the mass base for the Ku Klux Klan, European fascism, and modern fundamentalism. Liberals and socialists—albeit usually with a guilty conscience—have also endorsed various imperialist and chauvinist forms of bigotry. Nevertheless, it is what John Dewey termed a “warranted assumption” to suggest that a special affinity has existed between right-wing movements and the bigot: it is not true in every instance but it is true in the vast majority of instances, and it is certainly true today.

These classes vacillate between big business and the working class. Subordinate to the one, they feel superior to the other. They legitimate themselves by embracing “property, family, religion, order” and claiming that they wish to “save” society from “the enemies of society.” But they usually forget to mention that just as frequently it is “the circle of its rulers’ contracts” that is saved, “as a more exclusive interest is maintained against a wider one. Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, the most shallow democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ‘socialism.’” The right-wing agenda links the attack on liberalism and socialism. Its supporters intend to constrict pluralism, civil liberties, economic equality, and (literally) disenfranchise the subaltern. The assault on the “socialist” welfare state is thereby coupled with the attack on “liberal” concerns regarding gays, immigrants, people of color, and women. Supporters of these causes may publicly (and even privately) deny that they are bigots. Nevertheless, they obviously hope to derive power and benefits from policies that foster prejudice.

Prejudice seems to flourish among those groups most marginal to the capitalist accumulation process. The bigot is most often found in nonurban settings and parochial communities among the lower middle class, low-level bureaucrats, small business owners, individual contractors, and farmers—though industrial workers, particularly white men, are among others who can also prove racist and authoritarian. Were such members of such imperiled classes and groups to embrace liberalism or social democracy, or fully identify with capital or labor, it would mean embracing ideologies and classes that view them as anachronisms, their beliefs as standing in the way of progress, and their parochial way of life as irrevocably doomed.

The bigot lags behind the rapid changes generated by capitalism and so is condemned to resist new forms of social and political life. He looks for what is rock solid, what is seemingly beyond circumstance, and he finds his trinity: religion, convention, community. Fierce resentment of modernity’s advocates and beneficiaries—cosmopolitans, intellectuals, scientists, and secularists—becomes an intrinsic part of his outlook. This resentment stems not merely from (unconscious) envy of the elite, which was the famous argument of Nietzsche and Max Scheler. It also emanates from the bigot’s fear that the forces of modernity are destroying his social privileges, his feeling of self-worth, and his world. He is intent on not only resisting them but also reaffirming and taking back what is his, that which he feels has been unjustly taken from him. The bigot has already heard too much about the injustices that he perpetrated in the past. He is uninterested in dialogue with educated outsiders representing the subaltern who know nothing about his community and who are unwilling to take his views seriously. A right-wing poster makes the bigot’s point perfectly: “It doesn’t matter what this sign says, you’ll call it racism anyway!”

But then it is not simply what the bigot says but also how he says it: the obsessive-compulsive, often even pathological, style in which he organizes his experiences, articulates his words, and expresses his emotions. His style is not a derivative matter but instead a part of his character. The bigot senses that modernity is undermining his belief system and his ability to make sense of himself. This is the source of his identity deficit and what Sartre once described as an “objective neurosis” that projects the causes of his failings on the victim of his prejudice. The success of the subaltern in changing her status leaves the bigot with someone to blame for the demise of his world. The bigot is engaged not only in demeaning the target of his prejudice but also in turning himself into a victim. In his eyes, the real victim becomes the imaginary oppressor and the real oppressor becomes the imaginary victim. The bigot thus feels himself persecuted and his response is often tinged by hysteria. His neurotic style is a form of adaptation. Whether it is fostered by conscious instrumental desires to rationalize behavior, or unconscious desires to deflect guilt, depends on the circumstances. Either way, this style works to confirm the mixture of pessimism and resentment that predominates among those who believe they are losers in the march of progress.

The bigot justifies his entitlement by birth or by inherited privileges sanctified by tradition such as gender, skin color, ethnicity, or lineage. His superiority has nothing to do with work: it has not been earned. The famous line from Pierre Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro (1784), which was delivered by a simple barber to his aristocratic nemesis, still packs a punch: “Other than being born what have you ever done to deserve your privileges?”

The bigot can only answer by referring to God’s will, innate traits, or tradition. He is content to claim that his privileges are deserved because they have always existed, and that the subaltern is thereby eternally condemned to his inferior status. This view pits the bigot against the most basic contention of modernity and the general political position of the subaltern, namely that social practices are mutable. This helps explain why the subaltern has tended to embrace liberal and socialist ideologies. Part of the struggle for equality fought by Jews, people of color, sexual outsiders, intellectuals, and strangers involves a philosophical attack on fixed assumptions about human nature and on frozen social hierarchies.

As many forms of prejudice are available as there are identities. The bigot simply picks one and insists on the superiority of its (authentic, affirming, and self-serving) narrative to the exclusion of other narratives, its (authentic, affirming, and self-serving) customs to the exclusion of other customs, its (authentic, affirming, and self-serving) feeling of belonging to the exclusion of the Other. By heightening the binary opposition between “us” and “them,” the paranoid personality gains an elemental sense of superiority. But that division is then refracted by the bigot in different ways to different groups. The bigot thus embraces cosmopolitanism in reverse: instead of feeling at home everywhere, which Kant considered the essence of cosmopolitanism, he is intent on making perceived outsiders not at home in his community, his nation, his house of worship, or his tribe. The bigot’s world is small. There is nothing to learn, little sense of adventure, and less of possibility.

Emerging trends might expand the possibilities for autonomy, tolerance, self-expression, and self-definition. Human rights have been acknowledged in principle even by nations that have abused them in practice. The bigot, a reactionary by inclination and interest, senses the threat posed by progress—liberal education, toleration, and what I once termed the cosmopolitan sensibility. Progress inveighs against lynchings, pogroms, slavery, and witch trials. It fosters the idea of a common humanity beyond inherited traits, religious differences, and national boundaries. Progress makes it possible for the individual to look outside himself and take into account the longings of the weakest, “the lowly and the insulted.”

Mitigating suffering is an imperative that exists within every religion: Jewish law condemns the torture of animals; the Buddha spoke of “selflessness”; Confucius saw himself as part of the human race; Hinduism lauds the journey of life; and Jesus identified with the “lowly and the insulted” in his Sermon on the Mount. What Norbert Elias once termed the “civilizing process” describes the development of compassion, empathy, and toleration not simply for those like us but for those who are different. All of this rubs the bigot against the grain. So far as he is concerned, modernity has brought him nothing but grief. The lyrics to a song played by the white supremacist band Definite Hate sum up his feelings nicely: “What has happened to America/That was once so white and free?”

Excerpted from “The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists” by Stephen Eric Bronner. Reprinted with the permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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