It's the year 2021. Why are people still racist?
We have occasion, over and over, to keep wondering. The Washington Post pondered the question during the Trump administration, when the 2017 Charlottesville uprising showed us that America's ugly KKK roots are still alive and well. Of course, the WaPo arrive at no answer, only a bald examination of the puzzle.
Racism, and all forms of bigotry, make no sense, and yet they seem to be hard-wired into our brains. In fact, recent years show that we divide ourselves along an increasing spectrum of arbitrary differences. Ageism has reared its head with the perpetual generation war. We just got through talking about how politically divided the "United" States is. We sit around in our idle time and make up more ways to divide us: rich vs. poor, dog people vs. cat people, whether or not we put pineapple on pizza.
People: Sort us into two groups, and we will find a reason to hate each other.
Since we will find endless reasons to hate each other, no matter how defiant of logic, it seems a lost cause to focus on racism. And yet, it is one of the fault lines in human nature that generates the most antagonism. It is one aspect where, intellectually, we all agree: People are all alike, skin color means nothing. It is also one aspect where our mutual hatred really comes out. We're not killing each over for the pineapple pizza bit yet, yet, but we'll genocide whole color groups of people at the drop of a war drum beat.
Which is oddest of all, because there's actually no such thing as race.
Proof That Humans Do Not Have Distinct Races
It is so easy to do this, using basic math. Follow along with this:
How many parents do you have? Two.
Great grandparents? Eight.
And so forth, 16, 32, 128, 256, 512, 1024, scaling up at a neat rate of 2^x for x generations, going back in time. Can you see what's happening? In order for your entire family tree to stay distinct and free from any inbreeding, your ancestors have to multiply to infinity and beyond. This is standard genealogy:
Over time, the graph of people in your family tree rises steadily the farther you go back in time.
BUT!!! Doesn't that mean that some few dozen generations back, we would need a huge number of people?
The world population, right now, as of this writing, is about 7.8 billion. In your ancestor family tree, you come out to a total of more than a billion people by 30 generations back. 2^30 = 1,073,741,824.
Now we know that the world population is always growing, right? Here is a chart of the world's human population over time:
Global population did not pass the 1 billion mark until the year 1800!
That is only about 8 generations back, given a generation is estimated, generously, at 30 years. At 8 generations, you needed only 256 distinct relatives. That is easy to believe, but that 1 billion mark at generation -30 was 22 generations before that point. Thus we prove, somewhere back there since the dawn of history, somebody married a cousin. In fact, several somebodies had to have married several cousins. This is true of every breathing human alive right now.
You can't escape the math. Counting 30 generations back would land you in the late Middle Ages of history, about AD 1000 to 1200. The global population during that time period ran from 300 million to 400 million. There is no way you could have had 1 billion distinct, unrelated relatives. The farther back you trace lineage, the more inbreeding you find.
This proof is called the apparent paradox of pedigree collapse. What's worse, certain classes of society throughout history, particularly those who wanted to keep their ancestry "pure," had family trees that even got a lot more snarled than they had to be. The Habsburg ancestry chart is a good example. Yuck, uncle-niece pairings!
We Are All Cousins
It turns out we're all cousins, a few times removed more or less. We would have to be: the global population is steadily rising and all those people didn't just hatch out of spores. Scientists agree that race is a purely social construct, a matter of a haphazard combination of genes, different for every person, that falsely appears to align a person with a genetic group.
Whether we like it or not, we're all at least distantly related. Some scientists peg the percentage at about 80% of all the marriages in history has been between 2nd cousins. Some of this is just up to plain logistics: before the invention of all our modern conveniences, you'd have to walk quite far on foot before you outran your extended family tree. This is unimaginable in the Tinder age where people drop everything to fly halfway around the world to find their soulmate.
Current conventional wisdom is that every human is at least a 50th cousin to everyone else. Luckily, our genetic pool is broad enough that it's easily safe for twice-removed or greater cousins to reproduce. But even that comfort is a rare one the farther back we go in history. We all had common ancestors, after all. Nature just works that way, or we wouldn't have evolution because no consistent genetic variation could be reinforced by both parents' genes.
The Evidence In Our DNA
If it is the case that all humans are related, then shouldn't we be able to trace our lineage to common ancestry? Yes indeed, and recent genetic science has done just that. We have the bio-male chromosome "Y" and the bio-female vestigial genetic unit Mitochondria. Everybody on Earth has a near-identical copy, passed down mother-daughter and father-son all the way from ancient history. There's nothing special about these two individuals, just random chance that they had an unbroken line of surviving descendants.
However, the links between us don't always stop at just one common DNA pattern. There are genetic bottlenecks evident throughout history, as well as individuals who were particularly adept at sowing their wild oats. For example, 1 in every 200 men alive right now are descendants of Genghis Khan. Since he was also the founder of the Mongolian Empire and quite the conquering warlord, it's not that surprising. What can you say? The guy was a stud.
Another example is French monarch Charlemagne, from whose loins sprang a heritage that most Europeans can trace their lineage today. Once again, a warrior monarch won the genetic alpha male contest to be an ancestor to a huge percentage of the population. We could go on all day.
Notwithstanding royalty connections, there's another genetic factor that pares our mutual ancestry down to a smaller number. Genetic bottlenecks are times in history where there was a sharp decline in population as the result of a global-scale catastrophe. Applied to people, think world wars, plagues and pandemics, or natural occurrences that led to wide-scale famines. One theory around the Toba volcanic eruption some million years ago is that it wiped humanity down to a few ten thousand people, but later research is skeptical of this supposed impact.
Regardless, any large-scale disaster with a heavy death toll logically reduces the population, resulting in a handful of survivors left to restore our numbers. Future genetic researchers may well note a genetic bottleneck from our present COVID-19 pandemic. Remember that merely surviving a pandemic isn't the only factor; many couples who would be having kids right now are putting that off because they don't want to bring children into a pandemic.
So Why Do We Even Have "Races" At All?
Obviously, people from an ethnic group share physical characteristics which represent a concentration of genes in that local area. That comes to skin color, but also hair and eye color, bone shape, face shape, and endless little genetic variations. We'll let Bill Nye and his wacky sound effects explain this:
Basically, those with lighter skin tend to live more successfully closer to the polar regions, while those with darker skin do better closer to the equator. Then evolution took hold and the amount of pigment in our skin got passed down in our respective family trees. Really, that's all!
It's a shame that we make such a huge deal about this. But let's bear in mind, even if we were all the same color, humans would simply find dozens of other reasons to be prejudiced against each other. After all, ethnic Jews have been victims of some of the most notorious racism and genocidal attempts in history, but on the surface, they look like any average European. Recall the ground-breaking original TV series Star Trek and the episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," where an alien species was half-white and half-black - but the ones who were black on the right side persecute the ones who are black on the left side.
Believe me, we could all be perfect genetic clones of each other, with the only difference among any of us being whether we like pineapple on pizza, and we'd be fighting thermonuclear world wars over the damn pineapple. Our real answer is just "people suck," class dismissed.