Margaret Mead on the Root of Racism and the Liability of Law Enforcement
“The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it… It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.”
By Maria Popova
On her ascent to fame as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead became one of modern history’s greatest academic celebrities. As she toured the world to give university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various institutions, she brought with her the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions. In 1963, Redbook Magazine began publishing Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audiences over her extensive career.
After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner of a quarter-century, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — a compendium of Mead’s timeless insight into the human condition, bearing remarkably timely relevance to contemporary culture and public life even today. Many of Mead’s views — particularly her beliefs on equal parenting and the fluidity of human sexuality — were decades ahead of her time, but one particular subject stuns with its prescience half a century later, in the heartbreaking aftermath of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner: Mead’s piercing wisdom on the root of racism and the liability of law enforcement.
In January of 1969, Mead rebuffs the then-common belief among psychologists that children are born knowing how to love and are taught to hate, addressing the greater question of the root of intolerance and racial injustice:
Love and hate are two aspects of the same human capacity to react to other human beings in terms of experience. The infant whose world is warm, giving and reliable responds with love that echoes the love he has received. But the infant who is continually hungry, cold and neglected will come to hate those who hurt him and do not attend to his needs. In a sense, both love and hate are learned: the infant is born with the capacity to respond, and experience guides his learning.
It does seem true that hatred of a given person or a category of persons or things must be learned. We have to be taught whom to hate, and if we are not taught to hate people in categories, we won’t.
More than half a century after Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded about war and why we hurt each other, Mead notes that modern wars are fought not out of personal human hatred but out of institutionalized economic and political agendas. Understanding learned hate, she argues, is more relevant to race and ethnic conflict than to war. She writes:
Children’s initial response to the strange often is one of fear. A brown-skinned child, seeing a white person for the first time, may scream with fear. A white-skinned child, seeing a dark person for the first time, may also. If the screaming, fearful child is comforted, reassured and given a chance to learn to know and trust the stranger, he will have one kind of response — one of trust and expectation of friendship. But if his fear is unassuaged or is reinforced by the attitude of the older children and adults around him, he may come to hate what he has feared.
This is why it is so important in a multiracial world and a multiracial society like ours that children have many experiences with individuals of races different from their own. Only in this way can we hope surely to dispel their early fear of the strange and enable them to distinguish among individuals, caring for some and disliking others, not because they belong to a category of loved or hated people, but because of their own personality, as individuals.
(Many decades earlier, Mark Twain had articulated the same sentiment, then even more ahead of its time, in his moving meditation on slavery and injustice.)
In a question from 1964, just as the term “Negro” was beginning to fall out of popular use and shortly before it was replaced by the more politically dignified “African American,” Mead was asked to explain the statistic that “the Chinese, who live as unassimilated a life in America as Negroes do and who have suffered similarly from the effects of poverty and prejudice, have been so remarkably free of a criminal record.” With great sensitivity to nuance, she addresses the complex systemic issues at hand through the lens of anthropology, sociology, and political history:
In spite of superficial resemblances, the experiences of Chinese in America and of American Negroes have been very different. For the most part, Chinese migrants to the United States came of their own accord, and while they lived and worked here most of them remained closely related to their own society, to which, in theory if not always in practice, they expected to return. The Chinese have an ancient tradition of living in extraterritorial communities, and those who settled here organized a way of living which in some respects paralleled the way of living organized for Europeans and Americans who went to Chinese cities. Except for the scholars who came as students, most of those who left China were very poor, and they bettered their lot — and sometimes the lot of their families in China — by coming. Until recently the overwhelming majority were men, and the few women and children were protected within the Chinese community.
This role of independent, self-governing communities within the larger organism of American society, Mead argues, was a crucial factor in maintaining order and moral behavior within the Chinese immigrant communities, allowing them to “exact conforming behavior and punish infractions of accepted rules without, in general, appealing to American law-enforcing agencies.” Such autonomy made possible a self-regulating ecosystem of conduct as the Chinese essentially became “members of a self-selected colony” temporarily taking advantage of “the economic possibilities of an alien land.” Mead, of course, acknowledges the racism to which Chinese immigrants have been subjected in America, but points out a crucial qualitative difference:
When Americans exploited the Chinese through their unfamiliarity with our style of life or treated them to the kind of racism we have meted out to other non-Caucasians (or sometimes to non-Northern Europeans or non-English-speaking peoples), the Chinese colonists were angry and resentful, but the individual was not effectively damaged as a person. The greatest damage was to American clarity – to our own ability to see and understand a people different from ourselves.
Mead contrasts this with the “strikingly different” historical and social backdrop for African Americans, inflicted by the atrocity of slavery:
The ancestors of these Americans were brought from Africa by force, torn from a score of very different societies, speaking many different languages, without any traditional way of bridging the gaps between them and without a means of communicating with their own people still in Africa. Under slavery the family system, which was as strong in Africa as it was in China, was destroyed, and men were denied the right to have responsibility for their women and children. From the beginning, white men ruthlessly abused African women, and a new population grew up that was both bound in speech and custom to its white ancestry and punished by social ostracism and poverty for every trace of its African ancestry.
In a remark particularly — and devastatingly — prescient half a century later as we bear witness to the gruesome fallout of such historical baggage, Mead considers how such factors shaped these respective groups’ relationship with the law enforcement structures of the dominant society:
Unlike the Chinese, Negro Americans have had no ongoing style of social regulation to fall back on; what they have shared is the knowledge that the law is administered in one way for the white men and in other ways for themselves. Whereas the Chinese community has been able to protect its members, control its children, mete out informal punishment and reward, and cover for its members who break American laws, Negro Americans have had until very recently few means of protecting themselves to give them a sense of security and pride as a group.
But Mead’s most poignant and stunningly timely remark comes in her answer to another question about crime, law enforcement, and race in March of 1968:
The difficulty is that laws that attempt to enforce special forms of moral behavior breed disrespect for the law and for law-enforcing agencies among those who do not share the beliefs on which these regulations are based. And where disrespect and lawbreaking by the respectable are combined, one also finds connivance with crime in other areas of living.
The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it. The approach to crime is not a matter for the police and the courts — or even the lawmakers — alone. It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.
Mead, after all, is the person credited with the undying maxim, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is an infinitely insightful read in its entirety, spanning sixteen years of Mead’s thoughts on love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition. It is a pity that this treasure is long out of print — or, perhaps, evidence that even the most timeless and urgently necessary of humanity’s wisdom is seen by the publishing industry as disposable marketable commodity and quickly abandoned for some new fad — but used copies can still be found and are well, well worth the hunt.
Published December 5, 2014