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.


The Illusion That Is Caste

The Illusion That Is Caste

The word “caste” comes from the Portuguese word casta, meaning “race, lineage, tribe or breed.” It originally comes from the Latin word castus meaning pure. The Spanish and Portuguese used the word differently in the Renaissance period; to the Spanish, it was applied more in a hereditary way, indicating family and/or lineage. For the Portuguese, it leaned toward something more akin to “breed” or social standing.

Many know that India was a British Colony but what many do not know is that it was a Portuguese one as well. From the beginning of the 16th century, the “Estado de India” or State of India was a Portuguese colony until 1961, when the country of India invaded Portuguese India and a treaty was signed. In fact, the Portuguese had a far longer history as a colonial power in India than did the British. For an American, this is nearly unheard of unless you are a history buff. While this is as oversimplification of the complicated workings of colonialism in India, we will delve into this to make a point, I promise.

This same time period of Portuguese rule (Early 1500s to 20th Century) is marked by British rule in India, which ended in 1947. While the Portuguese were the first, after the Romans, to begin trading with modern India, it was the British who seized dominance by the mid-19th Century. In 1661, Portugal was at war with Spain and needed assistance from England. This led to the marriage of Princess Catherine of Portugal to Charles II of England, who imposed a dowry that included the insular and less inhabited areas of southern Bombay while the Portuguese managed to retain all the mainland territory north of Bandra up to Thana and Bassein.

While the British were in India before this, this marriage marked the beginning of rulership, not just trade, within India. What is interesting to note is what while the Portuguese were using the word casta to denote the hereditary social groups they perceived in India almost as soon as they arrived, it wasn’t until 1613, during the time of British interest, that we see the word translated to “caste.”

BrahminPriestAssistantChristopherPillitzImageBankGetty-56a0428f5f9b58eba4af9280What may surprise some people is that there is no Hindu word for “caste.” In Hinduism, rising from ideas within the Rig Veda, the term associated with the Vedic social structure is varna.

According to one author, “The Four Varna system reflects a deep ecological and yogic vision of social and universal unity very different from the divisive idea of caste by birth.” This is an organic and natural social order that does not coincide with a hierarchy of rule which was applied by both the British and the Portuguese. The term varna is not specifically found in Hindu writings until later, possibly as an add-on in the Purusha Sukta. The text noted to discuss this social structure is:

When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet? The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.

The basic idea of this is that we, humanity, are one construct made up of different, outward talents. The one construct, the Purusa, is the cosmic being, or some say, the cosmos itself. All human structure is built off this Purusa. Some may have an inclination toward knowledge and thought (Brahman), like a philosopher or religious person, and some way have an inclination toward service (Shudra) like a fireman or waiter.

However, all are part of the same construct called humanity and all have a part to play in helping the body move. No one of these is higher than the other – they are all necessary. Additionally, there was never the idea, in Vedic writings, of a non-Varna, or outcast/out caste member. Everyone is part of the whole. It would not make any sense to have a whole and then have something that is not part of the whole. To quote another author, “There is in this original Vedic model no outcaste, Dalit or untouchable. Each Varna constitutes a necessary part of the whole and all are mutually interdependent. Each is a manifestation of the same Divine consciousness working in humanity.”

Basor_Dalit_casteIndeed, this is an application of the British and Portuguese who were exerting control over the Indian population.

Either through misunderstanding or, perhaps, intentional co-opting, the Varna outline was translated and Westernized into a caste-oriented system where everyone fell into a suppressive class system, one type of human being better than the other. The adoption of these changes, from varna to caste, caused the dalit to be “created,” those that were considered outcasts and not part of society.

Dalit was a term coined about 1873, by the leader of a non-brahman-centric movement called Satyashodhak Samaj. Over time, this rigid caste hierarchy became the consciousness of a country. I remember being younger and hearing the words, “there is no caste system in India.” Yet, every Indian person I had met had embraced the idea of perhaps one group being above all others, superior to them, and others not being of equal value. The term unclean was part of the vernacular.

It’s important to know the origins of this, I think, not because of the events of history but because of the corruption of something uplifting and universal into the tool to create an oppressive society. Said clearly, from the American Institute of Vedic Studies:

“The Vedic social order was meant to instill an intrinsic feeling of unity in each individual with the greater society, and human society with the greater universe. The Varna system was based upon a transcendent ideal of human unity in the Divine, not an effort to give power and domination to one section of society.”

What was once a purely unifying religious concept was co-opted to create disharmony and foment discord among people.

gahndiWe have all seen this, as base, human need to tear down another group, using religion, education, resources, or a combination of all three in order to build the suppressive group up – whatever ‘up’ means.

Freemasons care about these things because, in the search for Truth, the goal is to build up and not tear down. It is to seek truth and Truth. In order to do this, we need to understand not only human history but the motivations behind the scenes. It doesn’t hurt to dig and explore the perhaps little known histories of the world.

One of the best podcasts recommended in this is “Revisionist History,” by Malcolm Gladwell. He does an excellent job bringing out about the little known facts of what we have taken to be “truth” and made the visible. Would that we were all as curious.

There are many things which are, I think, of interest to those who want to know Truth and build a better world, things which are knowledge gaps for us. Curiosity and an open find fill those gaps and shed light.  I know that I will never again think of the caste system as something arising from Hinduism, and I think this gives me the tools to help others think differently as well.