Editorial: Racism, Rioting, and Human Nature

We’re going to take some time out of posting tabletop RPG stuff to address the events of the past weekend. We will definitely go back to our regularly scheduled content Wednesday.

I’m going to warn, you, the (most likely) white reader, that this is going to be a difficult article to read. The reason being that I plan to hold up the proverbial mirror to you, specifically you, and show you some very disturbing truths. But there is a reason that these truths need to be shown to you. Acknowledging these truths and accepting that they are real will help you become a more compassionate, empathetic person.

The Duality of Human Nature

The first truth you must accept is the lynch pin for the rest of this article. It also may be the the hardest to deal with, as it addresses the very nature of our brains and how humans solve problems.

Despite whether you believe that evolution is true, human beings are gifted with a highly developed brain, one capable of reasoning, logic, compassion, complex emotion, and executive function. This part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, would not be possible without the less evolved parts of our brains. The parts we inherited from our mammalian and reptilian ancestors are just as important as the prefrontal cortex. They manage our involuntary bodily functions and drive us to feed, procreate, and survive.

The problem is that these less evolved parts of our brains also are the root of our most basic emotion: anger. The amygdala is the epicenter of our anger, anger triggers, and our fight or flight response. These impulses cause us to act when our survival instinct is threatened. Thankfully, these impulses are regulated by our prefrontal cortex, which favors using logic and reason to solve problems instead of our amygdala’s solution: violence.

The battle between our survival instinct and our reason is the very thing that makes humans special and dangerous. We are the only species on the planet who has this conflict. We consider ourselves the most evolved species on the planet because of our prefrontal cortex, but as the legendary comedian George Carlin pointed out, “What we are, is semi-civilized beasts, with baseball caps and automatic weapons.”

How does all this tie in with racism and rioting? Human thinking when dealing with a conflict usually begins with reason. We come up with logical, reasonable things to say in response to the conflict. When that doesn’t work, we raise our voice. We collect more data. We appeal to more people. These are logical ways of making the opposition see our side of the conflict.

If our reasoning is ignored, our anger rises and our amygdala starts taking over. We start yelling. We get confrontational. We may even abandon reason until our voices are heard. If we are still ignored and especially threatened, the amygdala does the only thing it knows how: survive. This is when violence occurs.

Here is the first truth you must accept: human beings are violent by nature, despite our ability to come up with non-violent means of solving problems.

Is Rioting Moral?

Once our anger has boiled over, the only thing we can use to communicate our struggle and message is violence. George Floyd’s murder was the catalyst to open a communication about a conflict between Black Americans and law enforcement. Protesters took to the streets, chanting their position on the issue: the police officers involved need to be arrested and charged with murder. Law enforcement did not act upon this very reasonable demand, so things escalated. Black Americans felt that they weren’t being listened to (actually, they haven’t been listened to since the day the first black slave set foot in North America) and their safety was being threatened by all the unnecessary tear gas, so the only other way to express their collective anger was to riot.

The many quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. that have been exploding on the internet all weekend have all been relevant, but the most relevant one was from a speech he gave in 1967: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” More specifically, he said the following:

A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

What is more interesting, however, is what he said before this:

Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

While admitting that rioting is a reasonable response to the lack of justice, MLK Jr. still thought that rioting wasn’t the best answer. I think most of us can agree. However, one thing that he didn’t address was whether or not rioting was moral.

I’ve seen many friends in the past few days express their frustration about how rioting seems more about destruction than solving the problem. And it is. But the thing is that rioting isn’t the problem. The systemic racism is the problem. Rioting is just a symptom. As MLK said, social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. But does the rampant destruction of property constitute an immoral act if the cause of it is the blatant lack of social justice?

The answer is no. Violent acts committed as a response to injustice are justified and moral. People also riot when their sports teams lose the championship. Is that rioting moral? No. It is rioting for an unjustified reason that has no social consequence.

But what about the people who are affected by the rioting: the business owners, the employees and the merchandise taken by looters? Is it moral for people to steal things and set buildings on fire? Normally, no. But in response to a egregious social injustice, looting and destruction are acts of expressing the collective anger of the rioters.

It’s natural for people raised in a capitalist society to care deeply about McDonald’s and flat screen TVs, but one thing has to be remembered: that McDonald’s can be rebuilt. It’s insured from arson. Those flat screen TVs are insured from theft. More McDonald’s can be built and more flat screen TVs can be manufactured. George Floyd and the countless other black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement for no good reason cannot be brought back.

Here’s the next hard truth to accept: human lives are more valuable than property. Period.

America was built on racism

A lot of people are convinced that the United States somehow was “better before.” They wish for “the good old days.” What they mean is “I wish for a time where all of these social injustice issues were not in front of my face at all hours of the day because they keep making me feel guilty for benefiting from said social injustices.”

It doesn’t take much research to see that the United States, from the moment the Puritans set foot on Plymouth Rock, has been built upon a foundation that is tempered with racism. From the establishment of the slave trade to the Trail of Tears, to the construction of the railroad system to the Civil War, to the Civil Rights Movement to the domestic terrorist acts committed on Black, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh citizens of the past twenty years, America’s most powerful tool in managing its citizens is widespread, systemic racism.

Every government, law enforcement, health care, education, economic, geographic and social institution has racism flowing through its veins. Racism is ingrained in America’s DNA just as much as baseball and apple pie. Socially, we as white people have been lied to by these institutions for generations, telling us Black people are dangerous, savage and even a completely different species than us and should be avoided as much as possible. Black people have been denied critical social services since they got off the boat hundreds of years ago.

White people, as a whole, cannot say that we’ve gotten to the point where our social needs are ignored by authorities. Our privilege has afforded swift and adequate resolution of any shortage we’ve encountered. Opportunities have literally been handed to us over the course of our lives. We, as white people, have no reason to riot and this is why it seems like such a disturbing concept for conflict resolution for us. Of course the peaceful option is best because it’s worked for us. Black people are not afforded such a luxury.

Here’s the final truth you need to accept: The United States, in every facet of its being, is racist. Black people have been denied opportunities to survive and thrive because white people do not see Black people as human.

For centuries, Black people have suffered and scraped by to survive. Millions have died in the streets, participating in dangerous activities just to make ends meet. Chances of receiving a quality education, proper health care, affordable housing and sustainable employment have been next to nonexistent. They have been relegated to set up their communities in the worst real estate in almost every city. Looking at a population density map can show you that almost every major city has pushed Black people to the fringes of said city, often in industrial areas where pollution is higher or in areas where building is difficult and farming is unsustainable.

We did this. White people did this. White people purposely disadvantage Black people and then blame them when they go to extreme measures to survive. Then we arrest them, beat them and incarcerate them and ruin the lives of families and neighborhoods that resonates for generations. When Black people speak up, we tear gas them and shoot them with rubber bullets. But when armed white people storm a state capitol building or a group of white supremacists march, they are not only not attacked by riot police but rather protected by them. How is it that we white people do all of this and not expect Black people to destroy everything around them? How arrogant are we?

The United States of America is infected with the cancer that is racism. The combination of rioting, protesting, voting and holding leaders accountable are the injections of chemotherapy this nation needs. If the chemo kills the cancer, great. But the nation may need to die in the flames of revolution only to be cleansed in the fire and born again anew, free of the cancer and dedicated to a new perspective, one of love, compassion and empathy.

I say burn it to the ground.

1 comment on “Editorial: Racism, Rioting, and Human Nature

  1. Hey Sean! Although the US is currently under the racist microscope, and deservedly so, let’s not forget that racism is a problem world wide. And not just of racial stereotyping but of culture, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and on and on and on. Could this be more a human nature issue then? Something inherently left over from our long ago evolutionary trait of “fears of others not like us?”

    Even if its not evolutionary programmed and a learned behavior instead — My point is racism of one kind or another is and has been embedded in all societies on some level most likely since we first walked upright, perhaps even before. Violent uprisings as history shows leads to little if any dramatic change. We’ve all (if of age) have seen America burn before in protest. Yet still, here we are?

    Perhaps targeting the corrupt self-serving American over-politicalized system which surely has much blame in the racial divisions today would be prudent. Because in my opinion — without change there, change may never happen at all. —Thanks Sean, I enjoyed your perspective.


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