The Absurdity of Hierarchy of Human Value
I’ve read two books recently that have rocked my consciousness to its core. Truly and fundamentally, I’ve had my awareness altered on some fundamental things that have defined my conscious, or perhaps my subconscious, thinking about how America works. Specifically, I’ve had my eyes opened on topics such as how documents and institutions that form my understanding of how our democracy works also work to keep a subset of our population in a controlled class, and how core economic philosophies that drive capitalism are manipulated to prevent certain populations from advancing. My enlightenment has come from Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. And I’m left with one big question – why? What’s the motivation for thinking that black people are an inferior race, and how has this continued?
First things first – sharing what I’ve read. Ms. Anderson’s book comes from a point of view turning a question on its head – why, when black communities protest and riot after incidents such as the Trayvon Martin shooting, or the uprising’s in Ferguson, MO after the killing of Michael Brown, do media and the general public quickly jump to pat phrases such as the crowds are demonstrating “black rage”? She posits that the race perpetrating the greatest rage has been whites, and she details atrocities whites committed against blacks through times of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration North, Civil Rights, to current times. I won’t detail all of the revelations to me, but one highlight was the Great Migration North, when free citizens of the United States desired to move from southern states to northern states. But they were black people, and the white people in charge, from mayors to state legislators to governors, created laws and impediments to freedom of movement. They prevented trains carrying goods and products necessary for World War I arms production from departing stations, just because black people were also on board, heading north, This particular example astonishes me – isn’t a foundation of our free market economy the ability to move resources (human, capital, intellectual) where they are desired and needed? Ms. Alexander’s book also carried the explicit narrative that white people’s actions through American history have prevented black people from advancing. She makes convincing arguments that the high rates of incarceration for African Americans today has more to do with bias and discrimination in the criminal justice system than it does with rates of crime. Drawing heavily from data on the “War on Drugs” started by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, she articulates biases throughout the criminal justice system, starting with local law enforcement discretion in deciding which populations to target for police activity, to local prosecutors placing undue burden on African American defendants by loading up charges and un-uniformly applying sentencing recommendations, to judges denying abilities of plaintiffs to bring claims of discrimination in courts in which we should all have equal standing.
These books were an education for me. I’m well educated – I have a Bachelors in Public Administration from Miami of Ohio, and Masters in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. I have actually been a student of our United States Government and its various institutions for my academic career. Yet, never once have I been called upon to question how our systems and institutions perpetrate racism and what motivates the decision makers who put in place the rules, regulations, policies, and laws that create a systematic method to keep people of color under social control and inhibit their ability to advance.
Aren’t the people in positions to make and implement public policy supposed to be looking out for the whole, and making sure that we, as a nation of individuals, grow, prosper, and achieve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” How ever in human history can there have been such hatred of a race that major systems and institutions in the US grew up to prevent black people from advancing?
One explanation is the hierarchy of human value. Listen to Dr. Gail Christopher, Senior Advisor and Vice President for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, explain the concept of the hierarchy of human value. In her work, Dr. Christopher struggled with the same question as I – Why? (explanation starts at the 11 minute mark). She offers the following:
- People are motivated by what they feel in their hearts – deeply held belief systems drive our behaviors.
- The notion that the human family could be differently valued – based on skin color – became the common belief, with whites having greatest value, and blacks having the least value.
- We built this country on this absurd hierarchy, and there are Americans who still believe that white people are superior to black people.
- Until we face the absurdity of the hierarchy, we will not have sustained change in racism and treatment of people of color.
While history shows that certain populations often considered themselves superior to others (Trojans versus Spartans, for instance), race was not always the defining factor:
The Great Chain of Being, a medieval idea that there was a hierarchical structure of life from the most fundamental elements to the most perfect, began to encroach upon the idea of race. As taxonomy grew, scientists began to assume that the human species could be divided into distinct subgroups. One’s “race” necessarily implied that one group had certain character qualities and physical dispositions that differentiated it from other human populations. Society gave different values to those differentiations, which essentially created a gap between races by deeming one race superior or inferior to another race, thus creating a hierarchy of races. (Historical Race Concepts from Wikipedia)
The “Racial Anthropologic” period expanded beyond the concept of a taxonomic concept to a biological concept. Concepts that skull shape and size were related to intelligence and other characteristics became popular. In “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races” (1853–1855), Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, argued there were differences between human races and that the European race was supreme. It is today considered one of the earliest examples of scientific racism.
Not until the 1940s, and in particular backlash to the Nazi claims that the Aryan race was superior and justified genocide of others,that concepts of racial hierarchy were challenged. UNESCO issued a series of papers that rejected differences in homo sapiens based on race. The first was issued in 1950 and stated:
According to present knowledge there is no proof that the groups of mankind differ in their innate mental characteristics, whether in respect of intelligence or temperament. The scientific evidence indicates that the range of mental capacities in all ethnic groups is much the same.
As Dr. Christopher asserts, notions of a human hierarchy, started in the Age of Enlightenment, influenced the founding of our country, and were our deeply held beliefs for centuries. Official statements and policies to the contrary were not realized until the mid-20th century. It will not be easy to change. She reflects in the Huffington Post that we have reason to be optimistic –
It’s significant that a polling analysis conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in conjunction the Northeastern University School of Journalism has found that a majority of whites now acknowledge that racism still exists, and that it creates bias in structures such as the criminal justice system. Furthermore, a majority of Americans believe more needs to be done to eliminate racism. In a poll last year, 53 percent of whites said more changes needed to be made to give blacks equal rights with whites, up from just 39 percent a year earlier.