Thoughts on ethnic violence

The following is very cynical, (even by my standards) and should probably be skipped by most people.

It also talks about racism and uses the names of specific groups, so someone will probably find a way to be offended by that. Please be advised that I’m trying to think about the root causes of racism, and that therefore means bringing up various nasty subjects. Those who dislike that, please skip this too.


In the following, I’m going to treat racism and ethnic violence as essentially indistinguishable. While this may not be an appropriate thing in all contexts, I believe that the psychological and social underpinnings of both are sufficiently similar – differing more in degree and in the nature of “what is acceptable in the broader social milieu” – that this is reasonable. This may or may not be correct.

I think a point that often gets forgotten is that racism is invariably an act of the strong against the weak. This gets forgotten because of the (almost clichéd) truism that racism is an act of the weak desperately trying to shore up their own position. This is true, but you notice that the weak never do this to the strong: to take a random example, late-medieval peasants frustrated with their lives went and lynched religious minorities, not noblemen. Because there is a strong evolutionary selection pressure against trying to lynch people stronger than you are.

So racism is an act of the weak against the weaker, an exercise of strength. So I’d like to think about this briefly in the context of how it should be handled from the receiving end.

One of the traditional answers is that it should be handled through the political and legal process, creating rules and so on which redress grievances. This has always left me with a queasy feeling, and I think I can put my finger on why. In this case, the “weaker” group is going to the “strong” group and requesting protection. While this gains them protection for a time, it does so at two significant costs. First, the “weak” group’s dislike of the “weaker” group will only intensify as a result of this, not weaken – you can’t legislate morality and all that. Second, it makes the “weaker” group much more deeply beholden to the “strong” group, to the extent that they depend on this group for life or death. It can sometimes be a good move, but it’s always a very dangerous one, and it depends for its success almost entirely on the “strong” group’s ability to always be able to protect the “weaker” group. (Like the problem of tattling to the teacher… yes, she can take care of the bully right then and there, but there’s going to be a time when she isn’t around…)

A classic historical example of this semi-working is the example of Jews in late Medieval Europe: In response to rising anti-Semitic violence, the Holy Roman Emperor decided to bring them under his own banner, declaring all Jews in the empire to be “servis camera nostra” – that is, personal slaves of the Emperor. This made them essentially immune to any local violence (which, typically being orchestrated by local nobility for their own reasons, was easily suppressed by the much more heavily armed Emperor) but at the cost of being entirely at his mercy. (The reasons for all of this came down, unsurprisingly, to money, on all sides)

I therefore see legal redresses as stopgap measures at best, and long-term problems at worst. Another traditional measure is education, but this has its problems as well. For one thing, it can only be done by the strong – the weaker are in no position to change the educational system, and so there’s no way for the group to “help themselves.” Second, something I’ve noticed is that education meant to stomp out racism doesn’t work.

I don’t mean that it has no effect: I mean that, as far as I can tell, it only can make a few kinds of changes. Typically it ends up marking some group as being unsuitable for being the target of racism, so instead the weak turn to someone else to beat up on. (Can’t beat up on the Blacks? OK, let’s start on the Hispanics next. etc etc…) The problem is that the underlying reasons for the racism – social and economic weaknesses and a sense of disenfranchisement – aren’t touched at all by this sort of education. So it may redirect the problem, but it doesn’t really handle it. From the perspective of the weaker group, it does get the heat off them, but it requires assistance from the strong group and thus has some of the problems above; from the perspective of the strong group, it may be a way to get that particular weaker group on your side, but it certainly doesn’t achieve much.

One aspect of why both of these methods are troublesome is that the good will of the strong group may actually not exist at all. In many cases, a strong group trying to keep a weak group in check will actively encourage racism as a way to keep the weak group occupied. The Marxists would say that it’s a way to keep the working classes divided; activist groups would say that it’s a way to keep the disempowered focused on something other than their own disenfranchisement. I’ll just be cynical and say that they’re both right, although the activist groups tend to use overly fancy words for it. 🙂

It therefore seems that groups which are the target of racism need to find entirely endogenous ways of combatting the situation, which don’t depend on using a strong group. One semi-endogenous way, of course, uses the strong group: find a way to make your group indispensible to the strong, and the strong will have no choice but to adopt you. (Then, you find ways to ultimately bring the strong under your control too — wahahahaha!)

In general, though, it seems that the only way a weaker group can cease to be the target without recourse to aid from a strong group – and this is often the case when the strong group has active reason to encourage this racism – is to make themselves strong enough, in one way or another, that the weak group is simply afraid to target them anymore.

This is a subtle balance. One important reason is that, if you make yourself seem too strong and uncontrolled (seeming uncontrolled being a good way to scare off the weak), you may accidentally scare the strong group as well, and suddenly bring down a whole lot more fire than you expected. (Trading a weak persecutor for a strong one isn’t neccessarily a good thing) One case that may be of this variety is the case of Blacks in the United States. The image of this group transformed from “harmless clowns” (remember blackface shows?) to “dangerous predators,” and so we had several decades of white neighborhoods asking police to protect them from the rampaging hordes. Not neccessarily an improvement.

One recent case which I think has been handled reasonably well is that of Jews in the United States, and this is due in no small part to the military success of Israel in the various wars of the 20th century. (I’m not talking about the present wars here, but about wars like 1948, 56, 67 and 73. The present mess may be a case of the situation being reversed – ok, now you’re on top, how do you handle it? Not as easy as it looks.) The image transformation here went from the old, money-grubbing man in the attic to… well, a wide variety of things, but basically a level of social acceptance similar to what other ethnic groups have gotten. (cf. how the Irish changed their role in American society) What’s interesting in this case is that I don’t think that the mechanism for this was a wider appreciation for Israeli military prowess in American society leading to Americans thinking differently of Jews: I think that the sense of military success in difficult situations caused American Jews to think differently of themselves and thus be less likely to be the victims of racial intimidation. Someone who sees themselves as the heir to great might tends to act very differently from someone who sees themselves as naturally beaten up.

The case that specifically brought this to my mind is the present rise of anti-Semitism in France. This is a situation where the strong seem to be tacitly encouraging the weak – the six million or so Muslims in France, mostly immigrants – to adopt racisms. (The story in today’s Times is here, although there have been quite a few more in the past year or so) It seems that in this case, there’s little hope for any assistance whatsoever from the strong there; one can either go to the stronger (the US) or look for endogenous solutions.

So, simply put, how should the Jewish community in France handle this?

More generally, how should ethnic minorities handle persecution which is being tacitly encouraged by the authorities?

(So why is this so cynical? It seems to be saying that the strong will always beat on the weak, and the way to avoid this is to be strong. Which certainly doesn’t accord with the things I was taught in elementary school.)

I don’t know what sort of response this posting is likely to get. Very possibly a shitstorm. But this is a question that’s been on my mind for a while, and present circumstances don’t lessen it.

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Published in: on March 22, 2003 at 12:32  Comments (6)  
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6 Comments

  1. (Note: When I say “Jews”, “Muslims”, or “French” here, I’m referring to the specific individuals mentioned in the Times article, and not to the three groups as a whole.)
    I read the article, and I think your analysis is missing a crucial element of the messiness.
    Your distrust of using legislative measures to combat racism are based on the fact that this makes the weak beholden to the very same strong groups that hate them. But in the situations discussed in the article, there were really three groups, in order of decreasing weakness: The Jews, the Muslims, and the French Establishment. The Jews in the article found themselves the victims of racist acts by the Muslims, so they went over the Muslims’ heads and asked the French for legal sorts of protections. So the Jews are beholden not to the Muslims, but to the French… and from the tone of the article, the French just didn’t care.
    Or in your weak v. weaker model, are the article’s French and Muslims considered to be a single idealogical block?
    If a is weaker than b is weaker than c, what role should c play when b subjects a to violent racism?

  2. In this picture, I’m seeing the French as the strong, the Muslims as the weak, and the Jews as the weaker.

  3. BTW, that was the same take that I saw, the french being the strong, the msulims the weak, and the jews the weaker.
    This model fits BEAUTIFULLY well into midwests industrial areas. There, the strong are the wealthy (usually white), the weak are “poor white trash”, and the weaker are poor blacks. The racism there gets interesting. But then there are areas in which the strong are wealthy blacks, the weak poor blacks, and the weaker are poor white trash.
    Note that I specifically state poor white trash. I differentiate poor whites and poor white trash. I really should with blacks, too. The “trash” elements of society are more concerned with status symbols and “respect”, while the just plain poor ones focus on getting by or doing better with what they have.
    Thanks for the very interesting post… It’s definitely got me thinking.
    Thanks.

  4. I don’t think there’s a total ordering of weakness, for one thing. Look at the racism between African-Americans and Korean-American immigrants in the early 1990s. Which was stronger? Which was weaker? Their strengths were different; it’s hard to tell who was stronger in absolute terms. I don’t think it matters, actually.
    Ethnic violence and racism can be reciprocal, and it isn’t always the case that you can point to who “started” it. So the “weak acting on the weaker” model doesn’t seem even close to universal.
    But I do think that you may have a point that ethnically motivated violence occurs from people who feel threatened, upon people they think they can get away with attacking. If that doesn’t get caught up in absolutes of strength and weakness, I’ll agree.

  5. Hmm… good point. I wonder if it’s nonetheless possible to find at least a local strong/weak/weaker model in that case, one that doesn’t imply any total orderings but represents how the particular groups saw one another. Very possibly not; this model may not be general enough.

  6. I must admit to being concerned about the direction your argument takes because such an argument could easily be used to justify the terrorism that goes on in Israel that is perpatrated by the Palestinians who have given up all but the most violent and desperate of measures because of their lack of faith in anyone else and in the benevolence of human nature.
    Cynicism seems to rule in this discussion, so I shall have to provide my own two cents’ worth. First, I would think that the Strong, in order to become such, are usually too smart and powerful to ever let themselves end up in a position where they “need” a weaker group. Even if a weaker group proves useful, they are still at the mercy of the Strongs’ whim; selfishness is only a little more reliable than altruism (not in occurence, but in effects).
    Second, and even more cynically, what if the group has nothing to offer, whether through lack of merit or resources, or through bad luck of the draw (to reference Settlers of Catan: you are trying to get wood for your sheep, but everyone’s baah-sting at the seams with wool already). In this case, should the group just die out in a form of natural selection?


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