Sam Harris has recently been challenged over the appearance on his podcast last year of political scientist Charles Murray. The co-author of The Bell Curve had been vilified as a pseudo-scientist after that book’s contentious claims that there are discernible differences in race and intellect, although they are so small as to not warrant discrimination. Although Murray’s science has been vindicated and further studies since the book’s publication bear out his view, in our piece below, we argue the case for positive discrimination in cultures where racism is, if not prevalent, at least extant.
When Archbishop of Canterbury envoy Terry Waite arrived in apartheid-era South Africa, he noted with mild disgust as Indians disembarked from a segregated gangway, while the whites were given a privileged entrance to the terminal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu met him; when Waite objected to Tutu carrying his luggage, the South African archbishop insisted:
“It is the black man’s burden.”
The joke plays on the colonial relationship between white people and people of colour, many of whom had been oppressed for centuries, and within living memory. It’s been said of Africans broadly that they have an inbuilt fatalism and tend to accept their lot. They regard the corruption of the political classes, for instance, as immutable, and they just get on with things.
On an unrelated note, while staying with South Africa, the death toll in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 is far lower than the 1976 Soweto Uprising’s death toll. Why is Sharpeville the more famous of the two atrocities? Perhaps it is because the white people who opened fire on the protestors were traumatised by the carnage at Sharpeville.
The difference between what could be read as an inbuilt philosophy of fatalism among African cultures, of getting on with things, and the recent, self-medicating reactions of working class white people to their sudden shift to even lower socio-economic status (opoid abuse, Trump-voting, and increased alcohol intake) during the Great Recession, as put forward anecdotally by Charles Murray in the podcast with Sam Harris, is also telling.
So African-Americans seem to have fared far better psychologically under the circumstances brought about by the 2007-8 recession – and they still suffer the results of that economic dip in ways that the rest of the US does not.
Are black people’s fatalistic outlook, and whites’ self-medicating tendencies under similar pressures, genetically-inherited or cultural? What of the mutability of our genes? In a lecture on epigenetics, Nessa Carey (at the Royal Institution) describes DNA as a script, not a template. DNA influences gene expression by different amounts. We can introduce enormous flexibility in how genes are expressed.
As Hank from the VLogBrothers tells us, nutrition, lifestyle, and both every-day and major stresses, all potentially impact on an epigenetic level. Methyl groups bind on genes and instruct these genes not to express themselves in specific ways. Histones are the spools that the DNA winds itself around. They are in effect the knobs to complement the switches of methyl groups. Most of the epigenetic information is stripped off the parents of any progeny, but some is passed from generation to generation.
Carey says that epigenetic modifications – when set up the wrong way early in life – can result in diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, which is not inherited (while Type 1 is inherited). In this instance, nutrition is important. Hank says our grandmothers’ dietary options in part determine our own (epi)genetic predispositions.
Nessa Carey cites a quote attributed to the Jesuits: “Give me a boy at seven and I’ll show you a man.” Environment is, it seems, very important. You can have a happy home or school life, but if you live in the projects in LA or the townships of Capetown and can’t find work, you are likely to undergo stressors that other people, working nine-to-five with a nice house in the suburbs, struggle to even imagine.
Carey points to the rise of the misery memoir as seen in writers such as Dave Pelzer and Frank McCourt. Why are these tales popular? Because they are statistical outliers. She says that a child of abuse who overcomes his childhood memories is exceptional. “Having a rotten childhood usually results in adult mental health disorders”.
Many with traumatic childhoods are psychologically damaged into adulthood.
Taking the experiences of any social minority, we can similarly point to how poverty adds stressors and results in ill-health. Epigenetic inhibitors and whatever else are possibly passed on from parents to children.
Slaves were generally illiterate. If there are literacy problems among the lower socioeconomic classes, from an epigenetic viewpoint it’s possibly the result of a lack of ancestral access to education.
WEB DuBois had described the “psychological wage” that whites have due to being non-black. In Alex Hailey’s Roots (a fictional account of his ancestors’ story), a slave’s tendency to run away results in his master chopping off his foot as punishment. Similar acts of barbarism occurred with a frequency that traumatised African-Americans and the southern United States’ slave class.
Postbellum, post-emancipation, African-Americans faced further traumas, perhaps a small percentage in the historical record, if recorded accurately at all. In New York, the Irish rioted as the ex-slaves came north in search of work.
The destruction of 35 city blocks of what was known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, was not a race riot, but a massacre.
Minorities in the US were deprived of education opportunities, turned away from properties even if they could afford them, their churches were burned, they were lynched simply because of skin colour, and they faced further discrimination- and segregation-related laws. To suggest that “bad genes” are the result of why minorities (where the nomenclature denotes, say, a group of limited power in a larger population) struggle to rise above the lower working classes – across the world – is an outrage. Further, if literacy programs, or flawed mentoring programs taught by underqualified Liberal arts graduates, frequently show more disappointing-than-expected results, we have reasons for this beyond the individual teen or pre-teen student’s learning difficulties.
Positive changes, on the super-genetic level of methyls and histones, can occur. The illiteracy of America’s slave class is a case in point. Since then, generations of African-Americans have continued to live on the lower ladder-rungs of socio-economic status. Their ancestors, taken from Africa to work in the Caribbean and North American New World, did not survive because of their intellect. This is not to say that they weren’t intelligent.
But some suggest that those who survived the transatlantic voyage did so due to other genetic traits such as their ability to retain salt, for instance, rather than any expertise in diplomacy through the English they probably learned as a second language. Those who did not survive were jettisoned as flotsam.
Our genes are not our masters. But affirmative action programs, and using minority quotas in employment and parliament, and less contentious, more conservative ideas such as providing equality of opportunity, can perhaps help to redress generations of wrongs.