"America is a melting pot."
I grew up hearing that, and it rarely occurs to us in America how singular a statement that really is. Because for the vast majority of human history, there was no such thing as "a melting pot." Every human being was a part of a tribe; exclusion from the tribe was death- abandonment not only to violence at the hands of another tribe but also to natural threats of any and all kinds, including plague, famine, and so forth. As a result, the tribe- or as we call it today, "culture"- was everything, and remaining a part of that tribe was more important than any other consideration.
What most people think of today as "race" problems are actually "culture" problems. Human cognition- like all cognition- tends to take shortcuts: Processing every bit of information in our environment is costly and time-consuming; processing that information according to heuristic rules of thumb is far quicker, and results in higher rates of survivability over time. Consequently, we tend to use "race" as a proxy for "culture;" it is an ancient equivalency: "That person does not look like me; he must be a member of another tribe, and so he is a threat." And although it is true that being raised with people of other cultures may mitigate this tendency when it comes to skin color, we should be careful not to be too proud of ourselves: Tribalism can take many forms, and open-mindedness in one realm does not preclude narrow-mindedness in another realm (i.e., a person who "sees no color" may still very well unjustly accuse others of being "dumb bigoted fascists"- and with equal animosity).
Culture is everything; color is nothing- and at the bottom of most "racism" is the underlying presumption that "race" is a useful shorthand for "culture." What "racists" actually find disagreeable is probably not skin color itself but rather what that skin color represents: a different culture, a different political worldview, a different way of seeing the world; in short, a threat to their own culture and way of living life. And given the vast history of the species- replete with war, conquest, subjugation, and genocide-, that is an understandable evolutionary program. And so how do we overcome a program that has evolutionary usefulness? Simply put, we do not; rather, we must press it to our purposes.
Psychological tribalism cannot be done away with. We cannot flip a switch and overturn thousands of years of evolutionary programming; we can, however, change our definition of "tribe." And most people do over time when confronted with individuals of different creeds or colors with whom they share values. Because, ultimately, all of these different methods of human categorization come down to values; they are cognitive shorthands for values and for value-systems, for particular ways of viewing the world.
And that does matter.
I am a realist, but I am not a cynic. We cannot rewrite our programming, except within boundaries determined by that very same programming; that is a fool's quest, an endeavor doomed to failure. But that is no reason not to use that very same programming to our advantage: We can redefine our notion of "tribe;" we can expand the horizons of our "tribalism." And indeed, that appears to be the general trend of human history: People show far greater concern today, for instance, for political differences than for racial differences, when perhaps in the past the situation was reversed. Tribalism remains, but the definition of "tribe" has changed.
That being said, nothing in this world is a certainty, and if we believe that such a world would be better, then we should be diligent in its creation- not to mention cautious that we do not allow that old hydra to rear a new head yet again. Furthermore, there is no utopia in the redefinition of "tribe;" there is only a new and different kind of conflict. Still, culture- which really does say something intrinsic about what a human being is- matters far more than color- which really says next to nothing intrinsic about what a human being is-, and so if we are going to be in conflict with one another, we ought to at least be in conflict with one another about something that actually matters. And what matters at all if not our individual visions for what the world might look like tomorrow?
~ Joshua van Asakinda