Tribalists amongst us

Lately there's been renewed focus on religious, ethnic and racial tensions around the world. The ever present but more noticeable anti-Arabism in the U.S. and especially in Europe, muslim sectarianism in Iraq, old feuds in Russia, Chinese-Japanese antagonism and the rise of fundamentalist religious extremists everywhere. And then there's the gall of old fashioned white supremacists proudly meeting in public in Northern Virginia.

What's going on?

Among the Trackball's earliest forays into truth were earnest efforts in the realm of race relations. Growing up in a rabidly racist place that was about 95% white and 99.99% closeminded, combined with my ability to see things as they really are, lead to some uncomfortable conclusions. 1) I had to get the hell out of there, because amid the desperate straining for homogeneity in everything, the Trackball was already an outcast, and 2) prejudice is alive, well, voluntary, more a mental disorder than an opinion, and relatively easy to spot. Coming out of undergrad, I was seriously planning on working on racial relations in grad school.

This is a long way of saying that I've followed this issue quite closely for a long while. Even took the Harvard implicit racism test and, no surprise, I scored as not preferring whites over blacks or vice versa. How did you do?

The problem is that the prejudiced discriminators are shifting in numbers and tactics. They can be divided into a couple of groups: the Overts, Quiets, Deniers and the Tribalists.
  • The Overts openly discriminate and don't care who knows. They are a shrinking breed of haters thankfully.
  • The Quiets maintain a neutral front, but when pressed or when they feel comfortable within their group, they'll cop to their prejudices, often shamefully.
  • The Deniers really seem to believe that they're not prejudiced, even though they keep showing otherwise over and over again.
  • Then there are the Tribalists, who are prejudiced because they think that life is a zero-sum game for groups and that they need to do their part for their side.

Somewhere along the way, many of the Quiets figured that they could take it up a notch and become Tribalists. They began to feel free or even obligated to 'help' their 'team.' They feel that others are getting more tribal, so if they don't, then they're group will lose out. Even though it's wrong, and they know it, they figure that people in a particular group just need to do whatever they can for their 'team.' They think they're being realists, when they're only rationalizing immoral behavior. But the rationalization gave them a new lease to be actively prejudiced.

Here's but one example from a recent Courtland Milloy piece on the PG county school superintendent:

The majority-black school board on Thursday selected a white superintendent from a tiny district in California to run one of the largest predominantly black school systems in the country.


"Let me tell you, this was an agonizing decision for me," said Howard W. Stone Jr., vice chairman of the school board, who is black. "We've had three black school superintendents who didn't work out, and I sure didn't want to leave black people and especially black students with the impression that a black can't lead.

"Did I want to turn this system over to a white man? Not if I'd had my druthers. But after looking at all of the candidates, this was the best guy to lead the system, raise the test scores and get our kids the best education possible."

Judge those statements as you will; I'm not sure who should be more offended, blacks in the county or the new superintendent. But to some extent, it's irrelevant. As you can imagine, the Tribalists have turned every effort to turn back discrimination into an opening salvo in some group-based Oklahoma land rush for jobs, money, housing, celebrity, etc. They cite the gay agenda, America and the West, gentrification, affirmative action, secular government and schools, development, the women's movement, democracy, etc. like they were mob hits on their group and that they should be free to hit right back. I guarantee you that at least a dozen white Tribalists read that article in the Post and decided to give a black person the shaft that day in retaliation. Never mind that their true fear is that individually they won't measure up without the help of some unfair group-provided advantage which is disappearing.

This of course leads to the worst possible feuds, where the prejudiced in each group sees evidence that the others are being tribal, their numbers swell, and so the cycle continues. Tribalist prejudice activities have exponentially negative effects. How to stop them?

Well, the reason I didn't follow through on the racial relations work in graduate school is because I realized that prejudice's voluntary nature makes it nearly impervious to external persuasion. It's a mental illness that is eagerly sought. No amount of research or public policy will dent it.

The only cure is for moral leaders to strip away the false rationalizations
and explain that in fact we're all worse off when the Tribalists gain power over us in sections. This would marginalize the Overts, shame the Tribalists back to Quiets, the Quiets back to Deniers and make some Deniers become enlightened. Everybody but the Overts know that their prejudice is wrong, but when moral leaders remain silent, all rightly assume that these leaders have become Quiets or even Tribalists themselves.


orangepips said...

So which category do you fall into?

The Rogue Progressive said...

Which category of the prejudiced discriminators? None of them. I guess I should have done a taxonomy of those who are not prejudiced, but never thought of what that might be.

Now there are those who believe that there are certain groups that are inherently prejudiced because of where their group falls in the social order. Or that everyone is prejudiced. I think both of those ideas are silly copouts.

mondale/ferraro foreva! said...

yes, very interesting indeed! yeah, i think for the most part people can rise above wherever they started from and rise above being prejudiced, though i do think it takes having the right experiences. like growing up i totally was against all racism as a given, but my high school was almost completely white so i was sheltered and it was mostly an intellectual ideal - after college when i moved to college park and lived in a community that was mostly black, i first felt a little uncomfortable, but then by hanging out with my neighbors and becoming friends i think that was the point that i really became truly non-prejudiced. so along with words from our leaders that promote the right ideas of equality, i think anything that can be done to have people of different backgrounds live together and understand each other is key! hooray!