Reviewing racism and “otherness” in the history of political thought

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Trump isn’t the only one who is racist

President Trump made some racist remarks on Twitter this week. He told four of his most powerful women critics to go “back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Here’s the full set of tweets:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly ...

... and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how. ...

... it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

As this NYTimes opinion piece explains, Trump was speaking in the white nationalist lingo, putting down people who are non-white. 

Properly called racism, putting people down because of their race, color or ethnic background is something the human race has done throughout history. It used to be worse, but in modern times — especially in ethnically diverse countries like the United States — people have recognized the harm that racism causes and the practice has become shameful. It’s certainly not a trait we want the government to have. 

Today, a number of United States laws function to combat racism. They generally don’t control racism on a personal level. These laws control government behavior and sometimes private behavior if it’s public-facing or making use of a public service (e.g. people offering commercial services). We’ll leave aside for now whether the President’s Twitter account could be subject to those laws (although we know at least the First Amendment applies there).

Our country does, however, have a racist past. It’s natural for humans to make judgments; it’s easy to make judgments based on physical features; and it’s easy to act on those judgments without conscious thought. Let’s now step away from the example of President Trump specifically and look at where these tendencies come from and how racism appeared in our early government.

Otherness and the human mind

The human mind is programmed to make groupings, or categories. That’s how it makes sense of the world. Ask Plato, who developed ideals of objects and classes of people to determine the best way to order a society. Or Kant, the philosopher who gave us one of the best ethical rules out there (the categorical imperative). Kant said our mind is programmed with categories before we’ve even experienced the world.

If you’re a perfect practicing Buddhist, then you are connected to everyone, and you don’t distinguish yourself. But our Founders were not Buddhist. They recognized themselves, and they made a government system to protect the “self.” Protect the self from whom? From the others, of course.

Protection from others is inherent to our government system

Around the time the American Revolutionary War was coming to a close, Western political thought was still focused on the “state of nature” thought experiment that started with Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, who had lived more than a century earlier (1588-1679) had nevertheless inspired the philosophers who inspired our government’s founders.

Philosophers like Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu had taken to the practice of pondering how humans would behave without government in order to determine the best role for government. What elements of disorder would exist? Then the goal of government is to resolve the issues. 

It’s basically a way to get at “human nature.” Hobbes’ view was bleak. Humans were entirely selfish and would do anything to get ahead; in the end everyone will kill each other. A hundred years later, Locke had a more optimistic view and imagined that natural humans were interested in altruism, at least to some extent. They agreed, however, that government was necessary to protect people from others.

The “inalienable rights” of John Locke appeared in the Declaration of Independence because he greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson. Government exists to protect “life, liberty and property” (actually Thomas Jefferson called the last one the “pursuit of happiness”).

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Although Locke didn’t think humans were inherently evil, his thoughts have been implemented into American government as a somewhat selfish protection of one’s property and liberty. 

Again the question begged is: protection from whom? 

To answer this question, let’s start at a more basic place. Instead of presupposing we’d have a fully populated society without government, let’s look at human nature when there are just a couple of people around; or maybe even just a small community.

In a simpler world…

One very influential philosophy posited that the world started with just two.

In Judaic and Christian texts, Adam and Eve were the world’s first partners. The world’s first two people were drawn to each other; they sinned together; and they lived only partially happily ever after. They were not immortal because after sinning they could not be perfect like God.

When there are only two people in the world, as the story goes, they end up being compassionate towards each other. In fact, they started a family. Connectedness brings compassion; compassion brings respect. And respect is a good thing.

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In the Adam and Eve story, the first family actually brought about the first evil in humans. Adam and Eve had two sons, and one killed the other out of jealousy. Man and woman can live as cozy partners, but brothers — hierarchically similar — can have irresolvable issues.

A number of philosophers have pondered the concept of the family to explore government because a family is the most primary form of an institution. Aristotle, for example, saw familial relationships as comparable to political relationships. The relationship between a father and his sons is like that of a King to his subjects. The relationship embodies friendship and connectedness, but the King has hierarchical control.

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Extend the inquiry to a slightly larger group - a set of families, or a clan. Things get more complicated, but the basic positive features like connectedness and compassion are still there. 

Friendship is like politics, bringing positive connections with others, but also negative ones with the “others” - the outcasts. Again, connectedness has a positive relationship with respect. But humans’ self protective nature may yearn for ownership of things to the exclusion of others. That’s how politics can be exclusionary: friendships to the exclusion of others. 

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Fully populated society

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Making peace and order gets harder with more people. When everyone is your partner or family member, everyone is connected, and accountability is reasonably clear. But when you increase the number of people, individuals are less connected, can be less compassionate and can be less respectful — particularly without some form of accountability or order.

Hobbes’ State of Nature portrays a world of pure instinct and no governance. In the State of Nature, Hobbes imagined that everyone had similar mental and physical attributes so that no one could easily overpower others. Everyone is primarily interested in self-preservation. They take everything personally and interpret many actions as potential threats to their future existence. They judge things as “good” or “bad” in evaluation of how those things will affect their future selves.

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In Hobbes’ State of Nature, people are perpetually at war. Since everyone thinks they deserve all things to help them survive, people start fighting as soon as it’s clear that resources are limited. Everyone can decide on her own what things she needs for herself. There’s no authority declaring fairness outside of the self.

This bleak picture of a natural human state led Hobbes to conclude that everyone should enter into a social contract and allow a king ultimate authority. Hobbes’ conclusion (giving ultimate authority to a king) was not as well accepted as his State of Nature thought experiment, in which others from around his time like Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau also engaged.

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In addition to Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau also influenced the American political system. Like Locke, Rousseau had a more optimistic view of humanity than Hobbes, yet Rousseau also agreed that society leads to corruption. Rousseau famously said, “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.”  This quote represented his view that elites were the problem for the common person. 

Rousseau’s version of the social contract said we don’t give up our liberties to a hierarchical authority; we give up our liberties for “the people,” including ourselves. Rousseau gave our Founders the concept of a “general will” (found in the “We the people” intro of the Preamble to the Constitution). In Rousseau’s view, citizens reflect upon their choices and vote based on what they believe is just. Rousseau’s conception of humanity respects individuals’ ability to make choices out of love for their political community -- not necessarily out of individual self-interest but out of interest for the common good.

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Whether you think people are inherently good or just purely selfish, the reigning political thought at the time the Founders set off on their mission to define a new government held that government must establish order and protect property.

Wealth and power . . . and then the “others”

Throughout history it’s always been the wealthy who desire order. The wealthy have something to lose. When you have something to lose, you are more likely to get defensive. People feel they deserve their wealth, and while they might not mind sharing with loved ones, they definitely don’t want to share with everyone.

The wealthy establish government because they can buy physical strength. Government is a means of self-protection. In a feudal system, for example, the King controls everything. He owns the land, leases it to his friends in exchange for loyalty, and then governs everything else by virtue of his power.

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The Founders and republicanism

Having escaped from a king, the Founders wanted their government to be different. This was the governmental shift from monarchism to republicanism that had been brewing in Europe for some time. Republicanism challenged authoritarian control (hierarchy, inequality, devotion, kinship, patriarchy, patronage and dependency) in favor of liberty and independence. A republican government trusted the people to recognize the interests of society as a whole. Peace and order would come through human connectedness (quite literally “mingling in drawing rooms, clubs and coffee houses”), as people recognized each others’ needs through love and compassion.

When the Founders then set about establishing their own order, they had aspirations to be unlike any other. A government for “the people” is what they wanted; not a monarchy. 

But, as it turned out, designing a republican government (a democracy) still left room for self-protection. What goals would democracy serve? Who would vote? The Founders answered these questions from their own perspectives, the perspectives of white men leaders. The new democracy would establish order and protect private property. Political leadership was not for everyone, and neither was voting.

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Recall Kant’s theory that the human mind shapes our perceptions before we even have them. The Constitution was like that. The Founders created a government structure that would recognize the needs of people in their positions: males would find voting rights; property owners would find protection of property...

Some people were property

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The Constitution did not recognize slaves as people. Slaves were property to be protected just like “chattel.” A person seeking his freedom from slavery was an offender.

How did that change?

Abolitionist sentiment had existed from the early republic, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that a strong movement to abolish slavery took shape. In the early 19th century, various religious and philosophical perspectives fueled by anti-establishment beliefs demanded equality among all humans, including for people of color and sometimes also for women.

Women and free African-Americans played a large role in the Abolitionist Movement. The movement gained in strength with the spread of narratives, poetry and other literature which humanized slaves, narrowing the conceptual divide between white and black people. Or in other words, it was a triumph of human connectedness and compassion over self interest — at least among enough people to win the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed equal rights, and granted African Americans the right to vote. However it was not for years that the government would implement policies that gave real equal opportunities to people whose predecessors had been slaves.  

It’s one thing to respect others in principle, but it’s quite another to actually give up our “stuff” — our property — to others. This is where a sense of entitlement comes in.

Today’s issues

Some of the policies of today that continue to work towards racial equality are unpopular because people don’t like to “share” with “others.” These are progressive tax policies, social benefits policies, and corporate regulation policies, for example.

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People who have worked for their wealth (or believe they have) may feel like the policies listed are requiring them to “share.” But here’s why that’s not true.

People have forgotten that the government has helped them all these years. While it may be true that someone worked for his property at one point, it was the government that helped him exclude others from it. Meanwhile the same government was pushing “others” down.

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Instead of recognizing that protection of property is a government benefit itself, people feel entitled and remember only how hard they worked to get where they are.

Entitlement to political hegemony

Before World War II, people didn’t hide that they felt entitled to political control based on their race. The U.S. had its own political movement (the eugenics movement) working to secure that “unfit” people wouldn’t mix with the leading class. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of people who could enter the U.S. from certain countries judged inferior and was championed with comments such as “The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent” (The Atlantic citing Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania). The Supreme Court engaged in the same white power philosophy, restricting an Indian who fought for the country in WWI from characterizing himself as “Caucasian” to keep him from being entitled to the privileges of “whiteness” (U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923)).

With World War II, people saw white power to the extreme, and the eugenics movement waned in popularity. With the Civil Rights movement came equal voting rights and other policies of anti-discrimination, but did the instinct to judge oneself above others die out? 

Political representation today

The makeup of our government today reflects the issues of inequality we have had along the way. Women and minorities are not in office in proportion to their share of the general population, although progress has been made.

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Diversity of experiences

Believing others to be like us is the main factor in eliminating feelings of supremacy, and this happens through connectedness with “others.” When there were only two people around, those two had to get along because they were the only two alike. 

If connectedness to others is essential to curb racism, it’s no wonder that people living in more diverse areas are less racist. That’s not to say, however, that Democrats don’t judge. We all have “others.” Some people just have more tact.


Correction: An earlier version of this report said Trump addressed three members of Congress in his tweets instead of four.


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