“My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else. All we want is for that trivial difference to make no difference.”
Rep. Shirley Chisholm, 1924-2005
Racism is us, and if you think otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself.
Actually, it’s even worse than that. We’re not just racist; we’re tribal.
Republican Presidential Donald Trump isn’t some aberration. He’s pretty much your average human animal with all of the political correctness stripped away. We are all full of prejudices; as Americans, we just don’t talk about them.
Trump does. He’s gone so far as to bring the country’s last, great, unprotected minority -the simply unattractive – into the spotlight so he can lash out at them in the same way he has lashed out at Mexicans and Muslims.
Trump is America stripped naked. Say all the bad things about him you want and then look around. How many Mexican and Muslim friends do you have? Or for you Muslim and Mexicans, how many Christian and Gringo friends do you have?
The reality is we gravitate to people like ourselves, and we sometimes struggle to get along with those not like us.
This is not something unique to the U.S. Tribalism ripped apart old European nations in the past and bathed the Balkans in blood in these times. Tribalism is now implicated in the almost daily deaths of young African-American men in Chicago.
To date, more than 550 people have died in homicides in Chicago this year. The city is on pace to average two murders per day for 2016. The Chicago Tribune now maintains a daily murder tracker, and writes a story about every victim.
Most of the victims and most of the killers are young, African-American men engaged in what might fairly be described as tribal warfare. The roots of the conflict trace back to gang warfare, but it now appears to have grown beyond that in the city’s poor neighborhoods.
There are parallels with what happened in Yugoslavia.
Evolution hard-wired the human animal as a species not unlike wolves. We have a history of forming small social groups. We gravitate to people like ourselves. We defend our territory. And, at our worst, our tribes go to war with other tribes.
America is, or was, different from the rest of the world in that the modern nation formed as a melting pot of people fleeing countries where many had been repressed economically or socially. It made them more tolerant, but there was always some unease among the tribes in the new land.
World War II drew us together against a common enemy. The Cold War helped hold us there. We’ve been fracturing as a nation ever since.
Native Americans with Native Americans. Asians with Asians. Whites with whites. Blacks with blacks.
Rich people with rich people. Poor people with poor people. Middle class with middle class.
Yes, there are outliers, people whose social group includes a broad diversity of races and social backgrounds. They are rare. The Korean Christian Church of Anchorage is predominately Koreans.
This is not to bad mouth that church or its members. I have met some of them dipnetting salmon in Alaska. They are wonderful people. But like all of the rest of us, they gravitate toward their tribe.
We are so inherently tribal that when it becomes difficult to easily recognize members of our tribe, we make up costumes and codes. There are reasons gangs have “colors” and “signs.” There are reasons Muslim women wear burkas, and sports teams create uniforms.
They are tribal markers. They are, in the case of some sports, tribal insignia so powerful they can trump that racial attraction to affiliate primarily with others who look like us. In sports, at least outwardly, Americans have been able to move beyond race, subjugating it to a different tribalism, to an extent not seen elsewhere in our society outside of the military.
On other fronts, we have, if anything, regressed.
“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King Jr. said as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital in August 1963, “that this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”
His was the dream of that old American melting pot that once blended warring Germans and French, that married Russians with the Jews they long persecuted, that took in waves of the Irish fleeing famine and the Poles fleeing racial discrimination.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King said.
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
King’s view was that of assimilation There are those in the African-American community today who view assimilation as a dirty word, a synonym for domination.
“…The real danger is the large mediatic hype of the United States, which could lead to a contagion of the assimilationist and acculturated servile behavior of black Americans, to the rest of the global Afro diaspora. In this case Martin Luther King Jr. would have contributed to strike a fatal blow to the assertion of cultural identity of black people worldwide,” Hubert Marlin Elingui Jr. writes in a flashmagonline essay titled “Martin Luther King a Traitor to the Black Cause….”
A splintering nation
This is not an isolated view. There are plenty of groups today decrying assimilation as cultural destruction. King was a man intent on looking forward to a new, better America where all the tribes merged into one tribe to forge a culture bound by the shining American ideals of equality and fairness.
He was be replaced by others more interested in looking back on what they considered culturally better times. Liberal U.S. historian Arthur Schlesigner Jr. was by 1992 warning of the disintegration of America.
A “cult of ethnicity has arisen among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities,” he wrote in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. “‘It belittles unum and glorifies pluribus.’
Some will recognize the reference to our national motto: E pluribus unum. Most won’t.
It means “out of many, one.” Schlesigner, like King, saw the country’s goal as building a new and better culture, not necessarily preserving old ones. And let’s face it, there are old cultures that should be abandoned, starting with those built around anti-Semitism and Aryan racism, which fueled the first wave of global murder on an industrial scale.
But anyone who thinks that sort of tribalism, and that’s really what it was, some sort of phenomenon unique to the 20th century doesn’t know their history.
“The whole site is a grave,” writes Duke University ethno-historian Caroline Funk. “People were wrapped in grass mats and laid on the ground. They left them where they died, some of them in their own homes, some outside. The whole village was a cemetery….
“The weather was clear that day. The woman came out of her sodhouse and saw a mist above the village. She went back in her sodhouse and told the children something was wrong with the village. The mist was steam from the blood of all the people.
“A man was seen crawling away. He may have been the only one left. He had a big hole in his stomach. This man crawled away with his intestines hanging out. His intestines would come out but when they got too long, the man would put them back in his stomach and keep crawling.”
Funk was not writing about Europe in the 1940s or ISIS in the Middle East in these times. She was writing about Western Alaskan in and just before the time of the first Russian contacts. Her work – “The Bow and Arrow War Days on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta” – is a history of warring Yup’ik tribes.
The wars pitted village against village. It was the height of tribalism soon to be buried under the weight of Russian and then American colonialism. Global colonialism extinguished a lot of little wars and replaced them with bigger wars.
The history of the high-minded United States of America does not look particularly pleasant in this regard, either. The new nation stole most of the northern and eastern parts of the country from Native Americans, and parts of the Southwest and West from the Mexicans who arrived there about the same time as new, warring Native American tribes moved in.
Human history is sadly written in a lot of blood.
There was a time when King was alive that racism and tribalism looked on the way out. Young, white Americans learned to sing “We Shall Overcome” in hopes of heading to the South to join the Freedom Riders leading the push to end segregation in America.
It was a heady time when certain segments of the country, if not all, envisioned a new culture built on universal equality. U.S. President Barack Obama came of age near the end of those days.
The seeds sown in his childhood would years later lead then Illinois state Sen. Obama to appear before the 2004 Democratic National Convention to echo King in proclaiming “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.
“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”
It all seems now so long ago. The country is in the midst of one of the most divisive Presidential campaigns in its history, and the tribes are warring. All sorts of tribes are warring.
Democrat President Hillary Clinton has publicly called Trump a racist, an accusation that hasn’t been leveled in a U.S. presidential race for a long time. Conservative media has, in turn, labeled Clinton a racist, and she is now forever marked for referring to half of Trump’s tribe as “deplorable.”
This from a woman who as First Lady stood by a president, Bill Clinton, preaching global unity. Those were the good old days when tribalism appeared to be fading and globalism rising. The then-president Clinton talked about a “nonzero-sum” world in which, to quote The New York Times, “everyone wins together.”
The former president hosts a panel discussion The Times headlined this way: “Besieged Globalists Ponder What Went Wrong.”
What wrong might be simple. It might be we’re just too damn tribal to be global. Sometimes these days, with the country splintering in the fight between Trump and the other Clinton, one has to wonder if maybe we’re too tribal to be Americans.
And with the some of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes talking about asking the federal government to put their lands intp trust in an effort to essentially create reservations in Alaska, you really have to wonder if we’re too tribal to be Alaskans.
There might be no better illustration of how much things have changed in America since the death of King than the latter effort to partially undo the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 which sought to eliminate reservations in Alaska in favor of societal integration.
Prisons become sanctuaries
In the “ever-present debate between those who believe assimilation into the larger American society is a worthwhile objective, and those who vociferously oppose it… the image of reservations for many has changed from being places in which the residents were involuntarily confined to being places of protection from outside forces, especially against the several state governments, traditionally seen as hostile to Native American rights,” the National Gambling Impact Study Commission observed. “The federal government, despite all of its possible benign neglect — and the Hollywood image notwithstanding — has traditionally been regarded as their protector.”
Integration is hard. It runs counter to our inbred human fears of the “other,” any other, anyone clearly not of our tribe.
Yes, those words are easy to write as a member of the old, white-guy tribe today. But that doesn’t make them any less true. I confess to having lived with White privilege, though it didn’t seem like it growing up in a small, economically depressed Midwest town where religion defined and separated the tribes just as well as skin color.
There is no doubt the latter colored my views on tribalism just as my later studies of evolutionary biology colored my views on integration or assimilation to use the dirty word. The scientific reality is that species adapt or they die.
Thus we are faced with an age-old human dilemma. We yearn to be tribal because that is where we are most comfortable. But worldly realities sometimes pull us, maybe even force us, at times to venture outside the tribe to survive.
In our better moments, we work well with the members of other tribes; sometimes even invite them to become part of our tribe or us of theirs. And in our worst moments, we withdraw into our sod huts, lock the doors and arm ourselves.