In his book, Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari includes a chapter titled, ‘There’s No Justice In History,’ that identifies and talks about the hierarchies – whites and blacks, Brahmins and Shudras, rich and poor – that we as a species have created. The reason I write about this today – and I’m also going to include an excerpt from his book below – is because of events that have taken place at Google (the anti-diversity memo) and at Charlottesville (the white supremacist rally) over the duration of the last few weeks. This excerpt is going to be out-of-context and I would urge those reading this post to go ahead and read the whole book to understand where we come from and more importantly, recognize these imagined hierarchies that lack any kind of logical or biological basis.
“By 1865 whites, as well as many blacks took it to be a simple matter of fact that blacks were less intelligent, more violent and sexually dissolute. They were thus agents of violence, theft, rape and disease. You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were a myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior. ‘Look,’ said the average white citizen, ‘blacks have been free for generations, yet there are almost no black professors, lawyers, doctors, or even bank tellers. Isn’t that proof that blacks are simply less intelligent and hard-working?’ Trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent and proof of their inferiority was the paucity of blacks in these jobs.
Nothing was as revolting to American southerners as sexual relations and marriage between black men and white women. Sex between the races became the greatest taboo and any violation, or suspected violation was viewed as deserving immediate and summary punishment in the form of lynching. The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist society, perpetrated many such killings. They could have taught the Hindu Brahmins a thing or two about purity laws. With time, the racism spread to more cultural arenas. The American aesthetic culture was built around white standards of beauty. The physical attributes of the white race – for example light skin, fair and straight hair, a small upturned nose – came to be identified as beautiful. Typical black features – dark skin, dark and bushy hair, a flattened nose – were deemed ugly. These preconceptions ingrained the imagined hierarchy at an even deeper level of human consciousness.
Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimized by history are likely to be victimized yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
While the book itself is a riveting read – which also made it to Mark Zuckerberg’s reading list – it is important to understand the message that it is trying to convey: our evolution is a product of unfair and imagined orders that originated by chance and not on the back of any scientific rationale. And it is high time we address and correct that if we are to evolve further. Just thought I’d put this out there, given the disturbing and divisive times we live in.
PS: He also goes on to talk about the imagined hierarchy of gender, clearly debunking some of the pseudo-scientific hogwash that a Harvard-educated engineer included in his rant at Google.