TIME Racism

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How to Tell if You’re a Racist Like Donald Sterling

Here's a hint: If you've ever said, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple," you might be a racist

Polls show that more whites believe in ghosts than believe racism is a problem in America. I guess that’s why Ghost Hunters is so popular but my show, Racist Wranglers, never got picked up. Maybe the reason is how we define racism.

Donald Sterling is not a racist.

In his own mind.

Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, Don Imus. Not racists.

To their family, closest friends and adoring pets, they’re just plain-speaking Americans who have probably said the phrase, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple.” (FYI: You might be a racist if you’ve used that phrase.)

That’s why their faces have that shocked “Who me?” expression at the public outrage over their statements.

All of them could probably name several people of color among their friends, close acquaintances and business associates. All could probably cite minority folk they’ve personally helped through their generosity. Sterling was about to receive a second NAACP award (since canceled) for his work with minority children. He had a mixed-race girlfriend. What more proof can the public want of his “I don’t see color” purity!

What’s that? You say you need further proof that he can’t be a racist?

Commentator Bill O’Reilly informed us that discrimination is “all in the past.” Fox News’ Eric Bolling seconded that by saying, “Is there racism? I don’t believe there’s racism.” A Republican National Committee tweet on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest confirmed the body of racism had been buried: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” Bam! Done! Mic drop!

Still not convinced?

How about the U.S. Supreme Court, you skeptical naysayers. The Justices (all wearing black gospel robes in support of racial equality) confirm Sterling and Pals’ assertion that they are not racists by proclaiming, “Racism is dead!” Well, if not dead, at least suffering from debilitating acid reflux. Several of their recent decisions, invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and striking down affirmative action, were based on the court’s assessment that “We’ve come a long way, baby” since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I’m surprised they didn’t close their decision with a wink and a “Can you dig it?”

Well, go tell it on the mountain, Justices, because down here in the flatlands of daily living, racism isn’t just alive, but it’s cloning faster than Sean Hannity can backpedal his support of Cliven Bundy.

Racism today isn’t like the racism pre–Martin Luther King Jr. Today we are faced with “situational racism.” This is similar to situational ethics, a philosophical and theological movement that argues that rather than having fixed, one-size-fits-all ethical rules of behavior, the context of each situation must be considered before determining the correct moral choice. Situational racism applies this flexible principle by declaring we must act according to a realistic analysis of race as it is in our society right now, not as we wish it were.

The clichéd example: You’re walking down a dark, deserted street and a bunch of black teens adorned with dagger tattoos and carrying bongs made from human skulls are walking toward you. If you cross the street, are you being a racist or a realist?

That’s what Sterling meant when he said on the tape, “It’s the world! … We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture … I don’t want to change the culture because I can’t. It’s too big …” He didn’t see his attitude as racist, just a practical reaction to a racist world.

Basically, he’s saying, “It’s not me. It’s Society! It’s the Man! I’m just a helpless pawn, a clump of toilet paper caught in the swirling toilet bowl of history.” The housing discrimination he was convicted of wasn’t racism, it was just practical business sense. After all, he’s in business to make money, not history.

Maybe the worst racism of all is denying that racism exists, because that keeps us from repairing the damage. This country needs a social colonoscopy to look for the hidden racist polyps. And we aren’t doing ourselves any good by saying, “I feel fine. Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here.”

The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds and experiences. But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.

One symptom of the malady is the many apologists using the election of President Obama as proof that racism doesn’t exist in the U.S. Yes, his position truly is a sign of the distance we’ve all covered in the last few decades. But, as recent events have proved, this race is a marathon and President Obama is merely a milestone, not the finish line.

The finish line is when racism no longer exists, not when people claim it doesn’t exist because they personally don’t notice it. Why is it that the people who are declaring racism dead are mostly white? Because if you’re not a targeted group, you don’t notice it. A 2006 CNN poll showed 49% of blacks saying racism is a “very serious” problem, while only 18% of whites agreed. A 2012 Associated Press poll showed that 51% of Americans expressed anti-black attitudes, up from 48% in a 2008 survey. Also, 52% displayed anti-Hispanic biases.

Every time the media call attention to racism, it raises the awareness of those who otherwise might not have noticed it around them. It’s a variation of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, in which someone learns a new bit of information and suddenly sees the information being used in multiple places in a short period of time. The reason for this is that the brain is constantly inundated with so much information that it rejects what it considers uninteresting (“uninteresting” being things that don’t affect you personally). This process is known as “selective attention.”

That’s why the best way to combat racism in the face of selective attention and situational racism is to seek it out every minute of every day and expose every instance we find. And not just racism, but also sexism, homophobia and every other kind of injustice that lessens the principles of inclusion that define this country.

We can’t let others control the perception or the message. We’ve got to go tell it on the mountain ourselves.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Basketball

L.A. NAACP President Quits Over Sterling Row

Leon Jenkins, right, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, announces that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not be receiving his lifetime achievement award, at a news conference in Culver City, Calif., April 28, 2014.
Leon Jenkins, right, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, announces that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not be receiving his lifetime achievement award, at a news conference in Culver City, Calif., April 28, 2014. Nick Ut—AP

Leon Jenkins, head of the Los Angeles chapter, resigned amid backlash over his plan to honor disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling admitted to making racist comments in a recorded conversation that leaked last week

NAACP Los Angeles chapter president Leon Jenkins resigned his position in the organization on Thursday after controversy erupted over his plan to award the now disgraced owner of the Clippers a lifetime achievement award for promoting civil rights.

Jenkins had planned to give Donald Sterling the illustrious honor on May 15, before racist remarks made by the Clippers owner were published late last week. Earlier this week, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned the Clippers owner from the NBA for life and fined Sterling $2.5 million. Silver also stated publicly that he wants the league’s board of governors to force Sterling to sell the franchise.

In a letter sent to the organization’s CEO on Thursday, Jenkins said his decision was made to safeguard the “history and reputation” of the NAACP.

“In order to separate the Los Angeles NAACP and the NAACP from the negative exposure I have caused the NAACP, I respectfully resign my position as President of the Los Angeles NAACP,” wrote Jenkins in a letter to the organization’s interim president Lorraine C. Miller.

The decision to award Sterling the lifetime-achievement prize drew some ire because of his troubled history with race relations. In 2006, Sterling was on the receiving end of a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department over alleged housing discrimination.

In 2009, the real estate magnate paid out $2.7 million in a settlement over similar allegations.

Sterling was already the recipient of an award from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP in 2009 — the first year of Jenkins’ presidency.

MORE: Will Donald Sterling Give Up Clippers Or Fight?

TIME

Los Angeles Is Too Weak to Make Donald Sterling Repent

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game One
During Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 19, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

The controversy surrounding the Clippers owners' alleged comments lays bare how impotent the city is, and how accountability comes only with outside intervention.

Late in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, Marsellus Wallace—a criminal boss played by Ving Rhames—banishes prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) from Southern California. “You lost all your L.A. privileges,” Rhames says with lethal menace, and Willis quickly leaves the Southland on his motorcycle.

If only it were that easy to kick Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of L.A. But, alas, Tarantino’s film is pure fantasy. There is simply no person, institution, or network in today’s Los Angeles with the clout to force powerful Angelenos to repent their sins—much less drive them out of town.

The racism heard on the leaked tape (which multiple people have confirmed is Sterling himself) may be news around the country, but Sterling’s discrimination against renters in his apartment buildings, and his anti-black, anti-Mexican, and misogynist views, have been well-known facts of Los Angeles life for 30 years. Despite that, no one has sought to dislodge Sterling from his role as owner of a major sports franchise. And now, with his bigotry a national news event, Sterling has become an outrageous example of the inability of L.A. to police itself, and its elite.

Even after the public release of an audio tape of Sterling demanding his girlfriend stop associating with black people, it’s safe to bet that no Southern Californian will pull a Marsellus Wallace and kick him out of L.A. If Sterling faces any consequences for his racism, they will come from the outside—the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Sterling’s fellow team owners, or corporations that sponsor pro basketball.

Who here would have the juice to force him to sell the team?

Prominent business leaders? L.A.’s rich corporate types are more engaged nationally and globally than locally, and they don’t have the public profile, or leverage, to threaten Sterling or his team.

City political leaders? L.A.’s charter keeps mayors and city council members from having too much power, and the state holds tight to municipal purse strings. Ironically, the mayor of Sacramento, former pro basketball star Kevin Johnson, could have more of a role than L.A.’s own mayor since Johnson has been retained by the players’ union for advice on dealing with Sterling.

The town’s newspapers or TV stations? They’re shrinking in ambition and staff, and their audiences have splintered so much that grabbing the attention of a plurality of Angelenos through the media is nigh impossible.

In L.A., accountability almost always requires outside intervention. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had mismanaged the jail for years, but only resigned earlier this year after the federal government began investigating. When Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was sabotaging the team, it took the commissioner of baseball, in Milwaukee, to force the team’s sale. In the past generation, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s special education program, and the Los Angeles Police Department all have required forms of federal receivership.

Outside intervention, of course, is no panacea. But the alternative is unchecked defiance, the best current example being Brian D’Arcy, head of the biggest union of L.A. Department of Water and Power (DWP) employees. For months, he has refused demands from city leaders, the courts, and the media that he turn over financial documents on two nonprofits that received $40 million from ratepayers. Even as he stonewalled, D’Arcy served on the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of distinguished L.A. citizens, as they issued a report complaining about a lack of accountability in city government. Did I mention that defiance is a close cousin of shamelessness?

In Sterling’s case, it’s unclear whether other powerful Angelenos would have moved against him—even if they could. For one thing, he’s got the kind of hallowed, homegrown personal narrative—poor kid from the Eastside (Boyle Heights) who becomes a Westside titan (real estate) —that buys plenty of second chances here. And Sterling bought social status by becoming a major player in the phony, philanthropic Beverly Hills hotel chicken dinners that always make rich people look charitable and sometimes raise money for a good cause.

By handing out money to many different people and organizations across all lines of geography, cause, and ethnicity, Sterling incentivized much of Los Angeles to ignore his racism. Among those who looked the other way was the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, which was about to give him a second lifetime achievement award when the recent news broke. It didn’t hurt Sterling that he advertised his charitable exploits in the L.A. Times, a paper that has portrayed him more as creepy uncle than as unrepentant racist.

This particular moment exposes the underbelly of Southern California’s open culture. Weak institutions and weak leadership free people here to do as they please and be who they are. But when someone powerful, by being who he is, does real damage to Los Angeles and its reputation, there’s no one able and willing to protect us.

Sterling’s conversation with his girlfriend—who, as a 30-year-old multiracial gold digger, was the perfect companion for the wealthy 80-year-old Los Angeles racist—was offensive and nonsensical. But Sterling did say one thing that hit close to home. When his girlfriend asked why he wouldn’t stand against racism in the world, Sterling said on the tape: “We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong. We live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.”

For all the criticism of Sterling that you hear from Angelenos now, he is decidedly the product of Los Angeles culture. He has thrived here. Now, he defines us.

This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Welcome to the Finger-Wagging Olympics

Kareem Abdul Jabbar Clippers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the Sears Shooting Stars Competition 2014. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

It's time to look at ourselves — and our collective moral outrage — in the mirror, says former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Moral outrage is exhausting. And dangerous. The whole country has gotten a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome from the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging. Not to mention the neck strain from Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking. All over the latest in a long line of rich white celebrities to come out of the racist closet. (Was it only a couple days ago that Cliven Bundy said blacks would be better off picking cotton as slaves? And only last June Paula Deen admitted using the “N” word?)

Yes, I’m angry, too, but not just about the sins of Donald Sterling. I’ve got a list. But let’s start with Sterling. I used to work for him, back in 2000 when I coached for the Clippers for three months. He was congenial, even inviting me to his daughter’s wedding. Nothing happened or was said to indicate he suffered from IPMS (Irritable Plantation Master Syndrome). Since then, a lot has been revealed about Sterling’s business practices:

  • 2006: U.S. Dept. of Justice sued Sterling for housing discrimination. Allegedly, he said, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
  • 2009: He reportedly paid $2.73 million in a Justice Dept. suit alleging he discriminated against blacks, Hispanics, and families with children in his rentals. (He also had to pay an additional nearly $5 million in attorneys fees and costs due to his counsel’s “sometimes outrageous conduct.”)
  • 2009: Clippers executive (and one of the greatest NBA players in history) sued for employment discrimination based on age and race.

And now the poor guy’s girlfriend (undoubtedly ex-girlfriend now) is on tape cajoling him into revealing his racism. Man, what a winding road she led him down to get all of that out. She was like a sexy nanny playing “pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.” She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee.

They caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping.

I don’t blame them. I’m doing some whooping right now. Racists deserve to be paraded around the modern town square of the television screen so that the rest of us who believe in the American ideals of equality can be reminded that racism is still a disease that we haven’t yet licked.

What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?

He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it.

Make no mistake: Donald Sterling is the villain of this story. But he’s just a handmaiden to the bigger evil. In our quest for social justice, we shouldn’t lose sight that racism is the true enemy. He’s just another jerk with more money than brains.

So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars.

The big question is “What should be done next?” I hope Sterling loses his franchise. I hope whoever made this illegal tape is sent to prison. I hope the Clippers continue to be unconditionally supported by their fans. I hope the Clippers realize that the ramblings of an 80-year-old man jealous of his young girlfriend don’t define who they are as individual players or as a team. They aren’t playing for Sterling—they’re playing for themselves, for the fans, for showing the world that neither basketball, nor our American ideals, are defined by a few pathetic men or women.

Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ).

TIME

Soccer Star Dani Alves Eats Banana That Was Thrown At Him As a Racist Taunt

The best way to handle racist taunts

When a fan threw a banana at Brazilian soccer player Dani Alves, who plays for FC Barcelona, he responded by calmly picking it up, peeling it, and taking a bite. Then he seamlessly resumed play and took his corner kick. His team went on to beat Villarreal 3-2.

“I don’t know who threw the banana but I want to thank him,” Alves told the Daily Mail. “It gave me the energy to put two more crosses in for our goal.”

Alves also commented on Twitter:

This translates to: “My father always told me: son, eat bananas to avoid cramping lol how did they figure this out?”

 

TIME Racism

KKK Forms Neighborhood Watch in Pennsylvania Town

'It’s just like any neighborhood watch program. It’s not targeting any specific ethnicity,' says the Fairview Township chapter president. The group has distributed flyers around the neighborhood that read: 'You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake'

A local chapter of one of the country’s most infamous white supremacist groups has launched a neighborhood watch in a Pennsylvania town.

Frank Ancona, the “imperial wizard” and president of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said leaders of the local chapter in Fairview Township, Penn. got approval from the national organization to form the watch, PennLive reports.

Ancona said the watch group was formed in response to a series of break-ins. “It’s just like any neighborhood watch program. It’s not targeting any specific ethnicity. We would report anything we see to law enforcement,” he said. “We don’t hate people. We are an organization that looks out for our race. We believe in racial separation. God created each species after its kind and saw that it was good.”

The group has distributed flyers around the neighborhood that read: “Neighborhood Watch. You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake.”

The controversial move by the organization comes as white supremacist groups face renewed scrutiny. Frazier Glenn Cross, the founder of the Carolina Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, was charged last week for the shooting murders of three people at Jewish community centers near Kansas City. As the Klan’s membership has dwindled from a high of nearly 4 million members nearly a century ago, many splinter chapters such as the Fairview Township group have been working to increase membership, through efforts ranging from a new radio station sponsored by an Arkansas chapter to flyers distributed in several Southern states that read “The KKK Wants You!”

Fairview Township police are aware of the Traditionalist American Knights’ actions but can’t prevent them from forming a neighborhood watch. “There’s not a whole lot we can do about it,” Lt. Jason Loper told the York Dispatch. “It’s a freedom of speech issue and, while vast majority of most residents don’t agree with their philosophy, we can’t discriminate against them…or we’ll open ourselves to a lawsuit.”

TIME Crime

Racist Internet Forums Linked to U.S. Hate Crimes

Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr., also known as F. Glenn Miller, who used online race hate forums, appears at his arraignment on capital murder and first-degree murder charges at the Fred Allenbrand Criminal Justice Complex Adult Detention Center in New Century, Kansas April 15, 2014. David Eulitt—The Kansas City Star/Reuters

Users of online hate forums are becoming “disproportionately responsible” for racist murders and mass killings, according to a new study. In the U.S., nearly 100 people in the last five years have been murdered by frequent users of one white supremacist web-group

A white supremacist charged with killing three people this week had posted over 12,000 messages on the website Stormfront, which carries the slogan “No Jews, No Right,” according to an organization that tracks hate groups. Frazier Glenn Cross stands accused of killing three people near two Jewish community facilities in suburban Kansas City.

According to a report released Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil rights organization, there has been a developing online trend of posters on online hate forums being “disproportionately responsible” for mass killings and racist crime.

A community of “White Nationalists,” Stormfront describes itself as “the voice of the new, embattled White minority.”

Users of the website were responsible for over 100 murders in the last five years, claim researchers.

Past visitors include Wade Michael Page, an American veteran who killed six people in a mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in 2012. Another was Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who killed 77 people in a shooting spree at a youth summer camp in 2011.

“It has been a magnet for the deadly and deranged,” said Heidi Beirich, author of the report.

Don Black, owner of Stormfront, told Reuters that killers like Breivik have been banned from posting on the site. “We’re obviously a big website, and any site is likely to have a few unstable people pass through,” Black posted in a statement on his website.

TIME Education

Ole Miss Fraternity Chapter Shuttered After Racist Prank

LSU v Mississippi
Detailed view of the exterior of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on the Ole Miss campus. Stacy Revere—Getty Images

Sigma Phi Epsilon is closed at the University of Mississippi after three members were expelled on suspicion of tying a noose around a statue of a civil rights icon, who was the institution's first black student

The University of Mississippi’s Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity chapter has been closed after three members are believed to have hung a noose around a bronze statue of civil rights icon James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the Oxford-based school.

“The decision is not a result of any individual incident, but a response to newly discovered, ongoing behavior that includes incidents of hazing, underage drinking, alcohol abuse, and failure to comply with the university and fraternity’s codes of conduct,” the fraternity said in a statement Thursday.

“Though the incident involving the James Meredith statue several months ago did not directly result in the chapter’s closure, it did mark the beginning of an intensified period of review.”

In February, a person or persons placed a noose around the campus statue and left behind a Confederate flag. In the wake of the incident, the fraternity decided to expel three students.

TIME human behavior

Your Baby Is a Racist—and Why You Can Live With That

485208647
It don't come easy: bonding across racial lines requires overcoming some very old genetic programming Hero Images; Getty Images/Hero Images

From humanity's earliest era, we had evolved to distinguish in-groups from out-groups and to assign powerful value to those differences. Call it racism, but it helped us survive

You always suspected babies were no good, didn’t you? They’re loud, narcissistic, spoiled, volatile and not exactly possessed of good table manners. Now it turns out that they’re racists too.

The latest evidence for that decidedly unlovely trait comes from research out of the University of Washington that actually sought to explore one of babies’ more admirable characteristics: their basic sense of fairness. In the study, 15-month-old toddlers watched an experimenter with a collection of four small toys share them either evenly or unevenly with two other adult volunteers. When allowed to choose which experimenters the babies wanted to play with later, 70% of them preferred the ones who had divided the toys evenly.

Nice, but there was an exception: when the two adults who were receiving the evenly or unevenly divided toys were of different races and the race of the one who got more toys matched the babies’ own, the 70% preference for the fair distributor dropped and the share of babies wanting to play with the unfair one rose. The implication: unfairness is bad, unless someone from your clan is getting the extra goodies.

“If all babies care about is fairness, they would always pick the fair distributor,” said University of Washington associate professor psychology of Jessica Somerville, in a statement that accompanied the study. “But we’re also seeing that they’re interested in consequences for their own group members.”

OK, so that doesn’t speak well of human nature at even its sweetest and most ingenuous stage. But here’s the thing: if we weren’t rank racists when we were very little, the species probably never would have survived. The idea of in-group bias is well established in behavioral science, and it has its roots long ago, in humanity’s tribal era. The fact is, the people in your own band are more likely to nurture you, care for you and protect you from harm, while the people from the tribe over the hill are more likely to, well, eat you.

As soon as you become old enough to toddle away from the campfire and wander out on your own, it thus pays to recognize, at a glance, what an alien other looks like. Sometimes it’s dress or hairstyle that provides the telltale cue, but just as often it’s skin tone, hair texture and the shape of facial features. It was the human tendency to migrate and settle in parts of the world with varying climates that caused these physical differences to emerge in the first place.

“We didn’t start off as a multi-racial species,” psychologist Liz Phelps of New York University told me in my upcoming book about narcissism. “We have races simply because we dispersed.” Once we did disperse, however, those differences in appearance—skin tone especially—turbocharged our suspicion of the outsider.

A study by psychologist Yarrow Dunham, now at Yale University, showed that color is an especially salient feature for very young people to overlook. Children in a classroom experiment who were divided into two groups and given two different color t-shirts to wear were, later on, much likelier to remember good things about all of the children who wore their color shirt and bad things about the ones who wore the other. “Kids will begin to show these preferences right away, in the lab, on the spot,” Dunham told me. “It’s not just a preference, it’s also a learning bias—the children actually learn differentially about the in-group and the out-group.”

Sometimes, for small children, there can be a certain sweetness to the bias, since they may feel concern for the person of a different race, the assumption being that anyone who doesn’t look like them must be unhappy about that fact. When my older daughter was three or four years old, we approached an African American cashier in a store and she asked her, “Are you sad that you don’t have light skin?” I winced and began to splutter an apology, but the woman answered, “No, honey. Are you said that you don’t have dark skin?” When my daughter said no, the woman responded, “So you see? We’re both happy with who we are.”

The sweet phase of simply noticing racial differences fades, to be replaced either by a higher awareness of the meaningless of such matters or a toxic descent into assigning ugly, negative values to them. Which way any one baby goes depends on upbringing, community, era, temperament and a whole range of other variables. What we will never be, like it or not, is an entirely post-racial species. Our better impulses may wish that weren’t so, but our ancient impulses will always test us. They are tests we must, from babyhood, learn to pass.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser