What Can Science Teach Us About Racism?

What Can Science Teach Us About Racism?

Cast as we are now into a state of civil unrest in some places, and massive peaceful protest in many others, it seems that racism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Indeed, this is a very real issue which is overdue for resolution. We, as a society, need to overcome both institutional racism, and widespread indifference to the very real struggles faced by the black community in America.

The Masonic Philosophical Society is an organization which values not only ethnic diversity, but also approaching problems with wisdom and objectivity. Particularly useful in the examination of any problem is to know what about it we can be relatively certain of? Science is the source of greatest certainty on any topic. In the case of the issues brought to the surface by the death of George Floyd recently, what can science tell us about racial bias?


Much of the rhetoric around racism is that it is learned, and we just need to unlearn it. However, if that were wholly true, then how would it have arisen in the first place? While it certainly seems true that racism is passed on culturally from generation to generation, there may actually be more to it, according to science. Most racism these days is not open or even necessarily conscious, but implicit and unconscious, at least in the majority of people. So how does this unconscious racism work?

Psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying racial biases scientifically for some time now, with many interesting findings. Much of it boils down to what many of us already know: We all carry implicit racial biases, which we would not consciously identify with, but in unconscious ways we nevertheless tend to treat people differently based on perceived race of that person. But why?

The theories of some experts are that our brains have a tendency to find patterns and to automatically categorize novel experiences or information according to those patterns, even when it isn’t rational to do so. This generalization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or feedback loop, as people of color are treated differently because of it, live in greater poverty, resulting in greater rates of crime, and the generalization lives on. This is a very difficult loop to escape, unless we expend conscious effort to change it.

So, based on this analysis, we can say that there is both a cultural and neurological component. Yes, we inherit it from culture, but the reason it keeps perpetuating is because of cognitive tendencies related to how our brains work, and perhaps why the phenomenon arose in the first place.


My experience as a white man with a majority of white friends and family has led me to believe that most white people do not overtly hate black people, although we surely carry some of the implicit biases described above, which we hopefully make efforts to override. I would say that the biggest issue in our time is not only implicit racism, but relative indifference to the struggles faced by the African American community among many people who look like me.

Science: Exploring the Human Brain, Race, and Empathy

The Human Brain, Race, and Empathy

In a way, you could say that this is actually the biggest problem we face, because it’s what prevents action being taken to stop the small, truly hateful minority from doing what they do to persecute innocent people simply for having black skin, especially in our police forces. If more people were seriously concerned about it, things would change, which is hopefully what we’re seeing with the current events.

This is where some other research concerning race and empathy becomes very interesting. Essentially, what was observed was that rats were much less likely to help other rats who looked different from them than they were their “own kind.” However, researchers later added a variable, where they raised the different types of rats together from birth, and the result was that the rats that were raised together were equally likely to help one another out.

The takeaway? We are cautious about those who are different from us, particularly when we are not accustomed to them. In a sense, a certain trust has to be built in our brain, you could say, by spending time with those who appear very different from us; otherwise, we will regard them with greater caution, and potential fear, especially when cultural biases already incline us to do so.


The good news it that the parts of our brains that are primarily engaged in these kinds of reactions are the most basic, instinctual parts, such as the amygdala, the “fear center.” This area is activated automatically when we are shown pictures of people who appear very different from us, in some studies. Our higher reasoning ability is located in other places, such as the frontal lobes, and it has the ability to override these animalistic, automatic processes, through higher level decision-making and conscious effort, as many people obviously have done to become less racist.

Understanding the underlying biological factors contributing to implicit racism and lack of empathy for black struggles can help us not just to overcome this problem in ourselves, but also to understand why it’s there in the first place. Rather than placing judgments on people that they are “evil” or “without conscience” for being less concerned with racial issues than they ought to be, we can understand that a deficit of empathy to those perceived to be different from us is a natural bias which we must expend effort to overcome. 


In that case, is it any wonder that many people haven’t put forth the effort to do that inner work, especially when not much in their culture demanded it from them? We must all overcome natural tendencies, for instance when we resist things like greed, lust, gluttony, or laziness.

Really, this is simply an aspect of being an upstanding moral person. We could simply add racial bias and indifference to that list of problematic natural tendencies, and consider it something which we must put forth conscious effort to overcome, especially since lives are at stake. We can also make a conscious effort to diversify our friend groups, so that we are less inclined to live in a bubble of only those who look like us.

Meet on the Level

Masonry and the Promotion of Equality

As Co-Masons, we are implored to overcome our bodily passions and unhealthy tendencies, and to function according to a higher purpose of aspiration to knowledge, and the betterment of humanity. We can and should consider overcoming our racial biases to be an important part of that process. 

We are well aware of the unfortunate historical reality of mainstream Freemasonry’s past and even present (in some places), when it comes to racial segregation or exclusion. Although we are an entirely separate institution, we would like to make it clear to all that race is not a factor which we even remotely consider, when it comes to accepting new Masons into our ranks. People of all ethnicities, political views, genders, and religions are welcome in our temples.


Being Blackballed – Part 1

Being Blackballed – Part 1

It seems that every English speaker is familiar with the term of “blackballing.” While some people associate it to the eight ball in pool or billiards, it really harkens back to Ancient Greece, and became an established part of the English language in 1770. It means the same thing today that it meant in 1770, or in Ancient Greece – to be rejected by adverse votes.

The function of “black balling” actually comes from the societies of Ancient Athens, where citizens were sometimes ostracized. Each year, during the Athenian assembly, the populace was asked if they wanted to perform an ostracism. If a particular city-state felt that a particular candidate for public office was effectually bad in the populace’s eyes (or, in some cases, might be bad), they would cast a secret ballot by writing the names of the person to be ostracized on a piece of pottery (ostraka). It’s speculated that some of the pottery shards were light in color and others dark. Names would be scratched into the shards on the black pieces and cast into an urn. After the balloting was counted, that person with the highest votes (6000 or more were needed) was ostracized for ten years. They could return after ten years with no loss of status, no loss of property, and no stigma. It was seen as a way to neutralize what might be an impending threat without any detriment to any party involved. Of course, the penalty for returning early, if not invited back, was death. Indeed, many were asked back in times of emergency or immediate threat.

Black pottery shards eventually became small balls of stone or wood, colored black and white, and urns became boxes made of wood. Many Freemasons would immediately recognize an early American (U.S.) ballot box as it is strikingly familiar to the ballot boxes used in Masonic Lodges today. The type of secret ballot used by Freemasons today originated in the mid-seventeenth century by not only governmental parties but gentlemen’s clubs, fraternities, and of course societies like Freemasonry. For significant choices facing the groups, such as admittance or expulsion, secret ballots are taken and then counted, the outcome such as rejection on admittance or approval of expulsion were enacted based on a specific count of black balls.

Hence, to be black balled is generally not good.

Balloting, or the original word, ballota comes from medieval Venice, where small balls were used in balloting by citizens (1540). At some point in history, these two terms coincided, ostracism and balloting, and today we have black-balled. Where voting is the raising of hands and out in the open, balloting is secret, hidden, and anonymous. While voting appears to be “light,” balloting implies a heavy judgement. One wonders, then, why we approve of anonymity when balloting? Why not take responsibility for so heavy a decision?

Perhaps it leaves the space for someone to be able to make that decision with a free mind and not be weighted down by the herd response of approval or disapproval. We seem to shun those who speak their minds and stand up for what is just and right. That may be a subject for another blog.

It does seem that one should put some care and thought into how they cast a ballot. We ask ourselves, when would I ever cast a black ball? What reasons could I give for supporting rejection of an applicant or expulsion from a group, rejection of an initiative or stalling someone’s progress in an organization? Who am I to judge? That seems to be a cop out. We are perfectly equipped to judge, as were are either the recipients of or the adherents to a particular group, government or organization. We passed. We were approved, for one reason or another. We are rational, thinking human beings and part of society – we are fully equipped to judge.

But do we judge well? “Justice to the applicant – we are taught to render justice to every man, not merely to Masons – requires that no black cube be cast for little reasons, small reasons, mean reasons,” wrote an anonymous, Ancient Free and Accepted Mason. This thought process should be taken by all humans, not just Freemasons, and in all situations, not just Lodge ballots. I’d say it should also not be for reasons of ego, personal gain, or to inflict punishment. We should be able to justify our ballots by reason, by well-considered examination of the facts, and a stoic assessment of what is better for humanity, the immediate humanity or the larger collective.

Most who cast ballots do not, also, attend to their own part in the process. We seem to cast ballots in a vacuum. Let others figure out the best candidate for the office, let some organization tell me what initiative is best for the way I think, or let others direct who should be included in my organization and who should not be. I trust them. Let them do the work. How infrequently do we actually read through the pros and cons of an initiative on a ballot, consistently – every election? What about reading through the minutes of our elected official’s meetings, or do a background check on an applicant, or better yet, get to know them? How often do we take our own personal lives out of the equation and figure out what would be better for humanity, not just better for our own little personal human?

If we don’t know the reasons for casting a ballot as we do, or cast it out of ignorance, how can we be entrusted with the welfare of humanity? Being a citizen, a legal inhabitant of a country which affords you its protection, requires a payment in return; that payment is to follow its rules and join in a common effort to create a positive, thriving society that creates safety for everyone. Citizenship is a very Western idea, again rooted in Ancient Greece and Rome, the concept is akin to a Freemasons Lodge. Each person who is a Freemason has a responsibility to the Lodge as she does to her own country: to participate in the creation of a positive thriving society of free-thinkers, educators, and promoters of humanity. It seems that the methods of a Freemason’s Lodge are akin to what we would like to see in our societies, our countries. Participation is key – in all aspects of our lives. This is a very practical application of Freemasonry: to learn how to participate fully, judge well, and learn how to improve the world around us. It starts with a Lodge. It can become so much more.

Part 2 will focus on why would we cast a black ball, and what does it mean to be black-balled.