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?

THE SCIENCE OF 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.

EMPATHY AND RACE

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.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS 

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. 

FREEMASONRY AND TRUE EQUALITY

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.

 

With Passion

With Passion

I recently attended a Masonic Philosophical Society discussion about compassion – what was it, what is it, and how did it get from there to here. In the course of the discussion, many people discussed kindness and manners but little discussion about compassion took place.

The word comes from the roots of ‘with’ and ‘passion.’ The modern, Webster’s version of the word means, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” As language evolves, and many of the things that philosophers study are dusty with age and wear, it was important to see where the word began. From its Latin beginnings through Old French, the word actually meant “suffer with.” From the 14th Century C.E. backward, the word is associated with suffering. To look at meanings, suffering and sympathy/concern are two wholly different experiences. What is interesting is the the word “suffer” also comes from the Old French, in about the same time period as compassion, and the word originally meant “the be under the burden of something, to ensure, to hold up.” The word sympathy shows up much later in vocabulary, around 1570, and is of two Greek roots – “together” (sym) and feeling (pathos).

compassionrockIn his book, “Sympathy: A History,” author Eric Schliesser puts the confusion between sympathy and compassion to rest. He breaks down, right in the introduction, the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Sympathy and empathy, which are often confused for one another, are different breeds. Empathy, a word from the 12th century C.E., was created, the author states, to describe the German concept of Einfuhlung, or the state of entering into someone else’s feelings. That is, in empathy, the person is actually “in” the emotions of others, whereas with sympathy, the person experiencing it is recreating what their imagination can create, from the building blocks of society, family, and learned experience. The person in sympathy is not actually feeling the same emotions as the person conveying the experience.

So, the question bears asking: are compassion and empathy related? How can one suffer without actually feeling the suffering?

The Chopra Center has an interesting distinction for the word compassion. They state:

“When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.”

In other words, you need to have both empathy and sympathy to be able to motivate yourself to compassion. Compassion is also action; it is the desire to relieve the suffering of the other person with real and meaningful work.

pairThe interesting difference between kindness and compassion is in the suffering. It is kind to hold the door open for people. It is compassionate to bring someone into your home and away from the cold. Kindness involves a gentle mindset and may be necessary for compassion; however, compassion demands more. It demands action that is substantial enough to relieve true suffering, a true burden. It’s not taking the burden off someone’s shoulders, or living the pain with the person. That achieves nothing. It is not only lifting the burden with someone but working on ways to bring the cause of the suffering to an end. The compassionate person has distance from the emotional weight and can therefore see more clearly what may be accomplished. In conjunction with the other, that clear-headed person can provide a guide through the suffering.

Compassion requires a higher thought, a higher attention to the greater good. It also seems to require an integrated person – someone who can truly see the person in all their different forms and deliver what is required. Compassion isn’t kindness.

Kindness is a quality of being gentle and generous. Empathy is the ability to actually feel the suffering of another, while sympathy is the ability to imagine that suffering. Compassion takes all of those facets and creates an action plan. We might equate kindness with the physical, empathy with the emotional, sympathy with the mental, and compassion with the spirit, if we were breaking this down in the sense of human experience. The highest emotion, in this human drama, then, is compassion. It requires the most energy, delivering the most gain. In other words, sometimes the kindest, and toughest act of compassion may appear to be harsh of difficult for the person to achieve. Saying “no” to the alcoholic is compassionate, as is saying “no” to the person who always wants the answer. Telling the intelligent person that their poor work is the result of laziness is kindness, empathy, and sympathy rolled up into a greater purpose – it is compassion. Enablement is not compassion: it is destruction.aroundcompassion

Freemasonry teaches you how to act but not how to think or feel. Freemasons are regularly taught to be kind and compassionate, yet subdue strong emotions in favor of thoughtful discourse.

Freemasonry also teaches you to act instead of standing on the sidelines and watching and simply thinking about a thing. Freemasonry provides opportunities for its adherents to be able to speak openly and view themselves authentically. Everyone requires a second set of eyes and experiences to become better, and it is in the bonds of fraternal love that compassion can be delivered. It requires different thought than the general society. It expects the Mason to not only learn to be compassionate but also to be able to receive that compassion. It becomes a true bond of fraternity, when honesty is the cement that not only binds us but supports us.

Are Freemasons perfect? Not by a long shot. It is in the compassion found in fraternal bonds that Masons can become better human beings and thereby better members and examples in the larger society.