Fear, Change and it’s Role in Racism in the US

I think we are all struggling to understand the world. With all the various crazy things going on, it’s hard to see a pattern that makes any sense. Patterns or cycles are often obscured by time, so one must took to history to see the pattern. I firmly believe that most people want to be good people, that they want to be helpful, to make the world a better place. Why does it seem in some ways that things are getting worse and worse? Why do people treat each other so badly?

I think I have some of the answers.

A large part of it is the media. They make more money from fear and hate than they do from love and hope. Bad news is reported 17 times for every time good news is reported.

Why do we crave bad news? It’s just the way our brains work. For tens of thousands of years, it was an evolutionary advantage to be afraid of things, it was a very strong survival mechanism. Yes, I say WAS.

Evolution is slow, most of the time. The world we live in now, at least in developed countries, is the safest world in the history of time. There is the occasional blip in the crime rate, like the uptick in Chicago recently but if you look at historical data on crime and violence it’s at al all time low and has been steadily going down for 100 years. WWII being the big exception.

Many people who just read the above paragraph either didn’t know about how safe the world is now, find it hard to believe or they are convinced the statement is dead wrong. It’s not an opinion, it’s a well researched fact.

This article is based on facts I’ve gleaned while doing research on a wide variety of subjects. You could say, I have a research problem. The links you see, are to the source material. Very little of what I’ve written is opinion.

When you hear the same bad things over and over again, you start to believe them. It’s a simple form of brainwashing and it’s very, very effective. This tactic is the main reason there is so much contention between political ideologies. But I digress.

Our brains identify things that might hurt or kill us so we can avoid them. And the media, based on ratings, keep feeding us more and more bad news, because we are seeking it out, it’s a vicious cycle. It’s this symbiotic relationship between the media and the way our brains work that is at fault.

There is another evolutionary process at work that an offshoot of fear. It’s fear of change.

Fear of change is at the heart of racism. Not changing WAS an evolutionary advantage. But it’s now a serious evolutionary disadvantage. Unlike fear itself, which still does have a place in our lives, there is such a thing as a healthy fear that is why when we walk to the edge of a cliff, we have an instinctive fear reaction. Sure, not everyone is afraid of heights, I’m not, but that does not stop the physiological reaction of my heartbeat speeding up, that tightness in my stomach.

But the fear of change really needs to go away! With the ever-accelerating rate of change, resisting change has become a strong evolutionary disadvantage. To say that we have advanced more in the last 200 years than in the last 2000 would be a big understatement. And the rate of change is only increasing. It will continue to increase as long as we have enough energy to keep the lights on.

It took 46 years before ¼ of the US population had adopted electricity. It only took 7 years to get ¼ of us on the internet. It only took us 5 years to adopt smartphones. In less than a century we increased the rate of technology adoption by 900%. Future adoptions of technology will be even faster.

There is a part of our society that is experiencing mental health issues, related to their inability to keep up with the pace of change. From an NIH study on change in China:

“…we believe in this case that a compelling causal narrative can be told about how a deliberate change of course in terms of economic structure and social organization has had psychological consequences.”

That their inability to deal with these changes is causing something similar to a fight or flight reaction. This puts people into a fear state, which shunts the blood away from the prefrontal cortex causing them to have a lower mental functioning and making them easier to manipulate. Perhaps we could start teaching resilience in schools like the US Armed Forces does to prevent PTSD? In any case, it’s a topic that deserves more research.

This is why demagogues create external targets to focus the fear of a population. People who are afraid are easier to manipulate. For instance, my niece is afraid to travel outside the US because of ISIS, when the chance of death by a terrorist is less likely than getting crushed by furniture.

It’s not only technological changes that are speeding up. Social change has been accelerating as well. At least it appears to be happening. It took us 89 years to abolish slavery and another hundred years to afford all the rights that other US citizens enjoy to also apply to Blacks.

It’s fear of change from the shrinking White demographic, that causes so much discrimination against folks who are not White. I can’t relate to a mindset that limits opportunities for people, just because you want to get ahead. This was less of a problem when White’s had a bigger majority, but now that it’s rapidly shrinking, people who can’t adapt to social changes that will eventually make us all equal, are freaking out. Um, this is America! The melting pot of the world What did you think was going to happen?

Black people have been suffering in America since the first time we stole them from their homes, bound, chained them and made them slaves. By and large that suffering has never stopped. It’s just changed. I remember being younger when I didn’t have the experience or capacity to understand why it was every other group of minorities who came to the US was able to eventually rise up out of poverty. It just didn’t make sense to me.

We had the civil rights act; slavery was way in our past. Weren’t we all equal now? Why couldn’t they do what countless other minorities have done? For a long time, I thought it had to do with Black culture, I couldn’t conceive of anything else. I didn’t have the frame of reference.

In the last couple of years, I acquired a broader frame of reference. I read a really good book High Price, by Carl Hart, a neuroscientist researcher, who happened to grow up in a poor Black family. The book is largely autobiographical and contains some of the most recent research on addiction. It was this book that first started to give me context.

Then, I came across a short video that talked about racism become more subtle and economically based, which sounded like a conspiracy to me. When I first watched it, I dismissed it out of hand because I don’t believe in conspiracies. Then I started to do some research and the more I read the more it made sense.

This is a quote from Lee Atwater that was featured in the video:

It has become, for liberals and leftists enraged by the way Republicans never suffer the consequences for turning electoral politics into a cesspool, a kind of smoking gun. The late, legendarily brutal campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

I could not believe what I heard! Especially when I not only read this quote from Lee Atwater but heard the recording. Atwater was an advisor to both Reagan and Bush as well as a past chairman of the Republican National Convention.

What demographic is hit hardest by cutting funding to public programs? The one at the bottom of our socio-economic structure. Poor Black people

If you look at the history of Black people in America, which is shamefully under-taught in our schools, as is the plight of Native Americans, the only demographic worse off than Black people. You will see a widespread and continuous pattern of racism and oppression.

From the mass jailing of Blacks in the south, post-slavery, Blacks in the south were jailed in large numbers for little to no reason to keep the southern economy flush. To Jim Crow and voter suppression in the south. While northerners like to villainize the south, segregated schools are still a problem in some parts of the US. The biggest offender? The state of New York! It turns out the northerners put a provision into Brown vs Education exempting them from segregation.

Then we come to the war on drugs, which I could write whole volumes about, it provided a lot more context. In 1914 the first drug laws were passed. At the time, America did not have a drug problem. There was no drug violence and addiction was not destroying many lives. On average 10% of people have some sort of addiction problem, regardless of the addiction. That number has not ever changed.

Once drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and opium were made illegal, it created a lucrative business opportunity, one that was filled by men of violence. It’s also when the desire to make more potent drugs started. It’s just easier and less risky to transport smaller quantities. It also created a way for the government to harass and control minority populations.

By the 1930’s Harry Anslinger came along. The nation’s first drug czar. He used race baiting to convince us to vote for stronger drug laws and then went on to blackmail the countries of the world, using the lever of foreign aid.

He told white people that if Blacks, Chinese and Mexicans got high, they would forget their “place” and get white women pregnant or become violent.

Then came Nixon. Who had a huge problem with antiwar people and blacks and used the same race-baiting arguments once again. And in his footsteps, Regan. The man behind Watergate, Ehrlichman, had this to say about the war on drugs.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The result of this is that Black men are jailed for drugs at a rate that is 15X higher than White men. While there are currently 17 White people for every Black person in the US.

Anyone with a basic understanding of math, would look at those numbers and think that something very strange is going on. How could a demographic that is so small, end up with such a disproportionately high number of drug convictions?

It’s really very simple.

In order to convince ourselves that it was ok to enslave Black people, we decided they were subhuman. An idea that went on long after slavery ended. I’ve had more than one conversation with White people in the last year who believe that Black people don’t have the same genetic potential as White people. Something that the science of genetics has debunked. Thankfully, most of the people I know didn’t need that sort of evidence.

What happens when you are at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale and you get a felony record? Your life is basically over. You’ll rarely ever get a chance at a decent job and you lose the ability to vote! If you come out of jail and your partner is on some sort of social aid, you won’t have a place to live as we have laws against that too.

And where is the only place in the US where it’s legal to force someone to work with no compensation? Prison. 2.2 million Black people are in prison in the US, they make up 35% of the people in prison. In the US. Private prisons make billions in profits of convict labor. The Prison population increased by 1600% from 1990 to 2009. In the same time, period crime decreased by 25%.

Crime has been steadily decreasing while convictions have skyrocketed. And we keep putting a disproportionately large number of Black people in jail.

Why does this happen? It’s this idea that our country was founded on, that black people are subhuman and violent by nature. It’s cancer in our minds. This meme isn’t limited to White people, it’s been so deeply embedded in our society that some black people believe they are less than as well.

It’s partly this that makes police target Black people for crime and partly they are easy targets. A poor black person is much less likely to be able to afford a lawyer or have powerful friends who I'll come to their aid. Many cops have spoken out on this.

When I was 19 I was arrested with a fair quantity of LSD, my dad who was well-connected call a friend who was a lieutenant with the drug squad in a nearby city. He told me exactly what to do and how to act to get a good outcome. And it worked, I have no felony record. A poor black person in this situation would have gone to jail.

When I get pulled over by the police, I don’t fear for my life. I’m an old white guy. The same can’t be said for millions of Black people across the US.

If you found anything surprising in this article, be curious. Learn about these things that surprised you so you can help erode ignorance and be more compassionate.

We need to put more money into research around the fear of change and the effects of rapid change on people and society. And help people better adapt to social change.

We need to end the failed and flawed war on drugs.

White people need to stop this bullshit “us first” attitude and start making a real social change to lift up the folks on the bottom of our socio economic structure. A rising tide lifts all boats.

We need to teach our children the truth about how this country was founded and how we have treated its indigenous people and Blacks.

We need to end the deeply embedded cultural message that says Black people are less than or violent.

Our government needs to be forced to create a more balanced playing field, we have more than enough wealth to fix all the problems our country faces, we just need to find the will to make it so.