Humans are social creatures. We’re good at working together to solve problems and complete tasks. We’re built to establish varying levels of emotional connections and bonds with others, and this contributes to a group’s cohesion and resilience. We establish cultural norms and various forms of social control mechanisms that also contribute to a group’s cohesion, as well as its uniformity. All of this increases a group’s ability to survive and thrive … and to compete against other groups.
And that’s the flip side of the human behavioral coin. As cooperative, helpful and even tender we can be with those of our own group – our family, our community, our ethnicity – our “tribe” – we can be equally antagonistic and hateful to those we consider of another group – the “other.” Particularly if there is some actual or perceived competition for such things as resources, power, access to opportunities, and legitimacy. And the fear that often results from these actual or perceived competitions can drive hateful actions to deadly ends. Even within groups, if there is differential access to these things among group members – if the norms and social control mechanisms are unable to maintain some level of equity – it can tear a group a part.
The racism inherent among the white nationalists who demonstrated and murdered a counter protester in Charlottesville, VA, over the weekend obviously isn’t new to the U.S. It’s been with us in various forms since before our birth as a nation. The slavery of African Americans, the genocidal displacement of Native Americans from their lands, the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, these and other actions stain our history, and their dark legacies continue to shape our interactions and power differentials to this day.
But while white nationalists’ racist beliefs aren’t new, one could argue that Trump’s campaign and presidency have rewritten some of our norms and weakened our social control mechanisms, emboldening more open, flagrant and even violent forms of racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. The Charlottesville rally is a prime example of that, potentially the largest white nationalist rally in decades as such individuals now feel more empowered to go public with their beliefs. The term alt-right itself is a form of normalizing white supremacy, as it seeks to give neo-nazis, the KKK, and other hate groups a place along our accepted political spectrum.
White Americans have the power here. We must stand up and work to reverse this destabilization of norms that strive for equity, that say installing a white supremacist in the White House as a president’s key advisor isn’t normal, that say affirmative action must continue, that say police officers shouldn’t rough up citizens when being taken into custody. And we must advocate for, and support a healthy, free and independent press, for it provides transparency of behavior of those in power, a key social control mechanism.
David Sloan Wilson has argued that we must learn to more deliberately upscale the social control mechanisms of the village (that include transparency) to the level of the nation state, and even that of the global village. The bulk of our evolutionary history was spent living in small groups, and as a result, we’re genetically and culturally adapted to this scale of interaction. It logically follows that our ability to successfully live on this planet as a species will depend on how well we upscale these social control mechanisms.
Policy makers, politicians, CEOs, activists, and others should all look at how we upscale these mechanisms, including the equitable distribution of resources and transparency of behavior. These were both important norms and mechanisms of our hunter gatherer and early village dwelling ancestors. Providing an acceptable minimum level quality of life to all citizens would limit a politician’s ability to capitalize on fear while running for office. Nor does transparency refer to only exposing selfish behaviors; promoting pro-social behaviors and making them visible are also involved.
One of these needed visible pro-social behaviors is for White Americans to speak up. We must recognize the existence of White Supremacy in all its forms – from the overt violence of the White Nationalists in Charlottesville, to the unconscious biases against job candidates based on skin color or even just names on a resume, to the environmental injustices that disproportionately impact communities of color, to the disproportionate disciplinary actions that students of color face in our schools. White supremacy is real. Institutionalized racism and discrimination are real. Black Lives Matter doesn’t equate with neo-nazis or the KKK. If you’re white and don’t comprehend this, talk to another white person who does.
And we must publicly shame officials, say the President of the United States, for not publicly condemning white nationalists, neo-nazis, the KKK, etc. Their world view isn’t in alignment with the ideals of the United States, nor with what’s needed for the long-term success and survival of our Global Village. Any individual worthy of the Presidency would immediately and automatically make that emphatically and undeniably clear. But Trump has fallen far short of what previous norms considered a minimum bar for the Presidency.
Creating a truly functional, equitable, stable and sustainable nation or Global Village certainly won’t be easy; nor is it a given that we’ll find the will to do so. But I think a “blueprint,” as David Sloan Wilson put it, can be found in our evolutionary past. It will take those with the most power recognizing the realities of white supremacy, finding what’s needed to upscale this blueprint, and having the courage and vision to do so.