Biology in the News Explained

Sociobiology shows us why racial integration is so hard, and so important

As discussed by Professor Chambers in the clip below, there’s no doubt that schools have become largely segregated again. Most efforts at integration ended years ago, during a post-1960′s conservative backlash, and now although it is rarely discussed, we’re pretty much back where we were – the only difference is that segregation has happened on its own, without government enforcement as was the case pre-Brown v. Board of Education.

It seems that the mainstream conservative position on this can be adequately summarized as, “So what? As long as there is freedom in where people are allowed to live, there is school choice (and hey while we’re on the topic, aren’t vouchers a great way to increase school choice?).” It is an argument crafted from the point of view of individual rights, which many people have trouble disagreeing with in principle.

But liberals, on the other hand, tend to see segregation as more evidence of institutionalized racism. They might respond, “How can you say that minorities have choice? A higher proportion of minorities live in poverty, and the associated lack of opportunity means that they have to go to schools that are populated mainly by other people just like them (ever heard of white flight?). Plus, they have the double whammy that keeping property-tax spending on schools local means that the poor kids who need a leg-up in education the most are stuck in the worst schools.”

The key problem we need to recognize is that while there are some political reasons for the re-segregation of schools, on a simpler level there always is a natural human tendency to gravitate toward groups of people more “like us,” whether that similarity lies in wealth, race, religion, etc. It goes both ways – it’s not just whites and rich people who gravitate toward each other, but blacks and poor people as well. A white man I know who was involved in a voluntary busing program in Denver in the 1960s told me that the bus driver had to take a different route each day because if he went the same way, people of both races would throw rocks at the bus.

So if this tendency is natural, what’s wrong with it? Identifying the difference between “in-group” and “out-group” members is a clear byproduct of humans’ evolutionary history as social animals. The rules we make about distinguishing these probably worked fairly well for us in pre-technological times. But as horses, ships, trains, planes, telephones, and now the internet brought more and more disparate groups of humans into casual contact with each other, the problems associated with our love of in-group increased exponentially. The high-level of internet vitriol aimed from one group to another is a direct result of the lack of social cost to negative interactions, which are almost inevitable when interactions are anonymous.

In our now small yet heterogeneous world, we interact continually with people on a much larger scale than did the original social groups which shaped our evolution, and it turns out that our natural circle-the-wagons tendencies are damaging on that larger social and political scale, because the larger scale affects us all a lot through state and federal policy.

And this brings us to why integration is so important. School integration has been known to have positive academic effects on children (that is, actual integration, not the political violence that has often accompanied it) for a long time (Maynor and Katzenmeyer, 1974). Although some argue that racial tensions can be raised by forced integration, this is likely an artifact of time and scale. There is no doubt that a lot of bigotry comes from the ease in which the out-group can be placed in the category of “other”; if people actually interact face-to-face with the “other” on a daily (and equal) basis, much of the knee jerk conflict disappears. As an obvious example of this, just notice what is currently happening with acceptance of gays in this country. When gays were largely closeted, very few heterosexuals believed that they knew any, so it was easy to demonize them. The reason that younger people are clearly so much more accepting of homosexuals is they have grown up among open gays. These days, almost every heterosexual has a known gay acquaintance, if not friend, and with that knowledge comes the realization that gays are actually human beings pretty much the same as the rest of us. This realization takes time for some people, but although there are of course violently anti-gay holdouts, the great majority of people come around eventually to a more sympathetic point of view. The same holds with people of a different race.

Race relations are far from ideal, but no one can deny that they progressed mightily in the 60s and 70s. Integration must have been part of the reason. But backsliding is a real danger with the current generation if people go back to their segregated lives, whether or not it is due to active ideology, or just complacency. Our innate social tendencies make this the path of least resistance, so for us to stay on the alternate path toward racial equality, we have to work at it continually. Even if this is ultimately a sisyphean task, and we can never reach a stable end point, the very act of trying will make us a better country in the long run. When we give up the ideal of racial integration and equality because of the notion that the only way to achieve it violates individual rights which are sacrosanct, society becomes more fractured and the isolationism feeds back on increased resistance to coming back together.

A fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals seems to be that conservatives believe that individual rights should always trump all else, while liberals see societal cohesiveness as at least equally important (whether or not a given liberal’s proposed methods to get there are valid or not is a separate issue). Sociobiology tells us that the needs of the social group support the needs of the individual – we know that individual humans cannot survive without society. Societies, though, have to have lots of rules for them to function properly (meaning, for individuals to be successful within that society). Whether or not individualists like it, the security and stability of our planet depends on us overcoming our innate small-group tendencies to recognize that our default social group is now largely defined on a much, much larger scale than our brains want it to be. The issues in figuring out how to get along better may be complex and difficult, but this does not change the imperative. We can start to retrain our brains though, by spending less time in the echo chamber of the internet, and more time making an effort to interact face-to-face, and with an open mind, with people who are not like us.


Maynor, W., and Katzenmeyer, W.G., 1974. Academic performance and school integration: a multi-ethnic analysis. The Journal of Negro Education 43(1):30-38


5 Responses to “Sociobiology shows us why racial integration is so hard, and so important”

  1. GPHanner says:

    If your last paragraph is true, why do we see things like the Akaka Bill, which is intended to single out “native Hawaiians,” whatever that is, for special treatment? Culturally and racially, the people of Hawaii are as much a melting pot as I have ever seen, yet someone wants to impose a form of segregation on the population.

  2. Biotunes says:

    Hawai`i is a great example. I had the great fortune to live there for several years, and you are right on about race relations in Hawai`i. For example, interracial marriage in Hawai`i was not even thought about in separate terms from other marriage, long before miscegenation laws ruled throughout the continental U.S, which is another example of how well integration works.

    Although you are right that the Akaka bill, which is similar to federal recognition of American Indian tribes, singles out a particular ethnic group, I believe you are wrong that this somehow will promote segregation. Within Hawai`i, the bill has uniform support across the races and cultures, and has brought them together behind a single issue, which I’m sure would never happen if Hawai`i currently had segregation. (Do you live there now? If so, how long? I would be interested to know.)

    Legislation dealing with indigenous peoples is often complicated and controversial (and different from the integration of blacks and whites in the CONUS) because it is primarily about some small bit of reparation for massive exploitation in the past, even though it is for people who weren’t around when the exploitation occurred.

    The best reason I can think of for it is that it is a gesture to show that descendants from a land whose people had been there longer than anyone else would have the rights to conserve their culture. It really wasn’t that long ago that expressing any aspect of native culture was explicitly banned, which I think we can agree was wrong even if we prefer a cultural melting pot. There really isn’t anything in there to physically separate Hawaiians from non – they will continue to interact as before.

    So I don’t think you can’t honestly say that this legislation is truly singling out native Hawaiians for special treatment, any more than similar laws for continental American Indians have given them any special advantage over whites (especially since gambling is explicitly not part of the package in this case). Knowing what I do about Linda Lingle, if the bill had any teeth to do that, she (and other races in the Hawaiian legislature) would not support it. I don’t know of any whites who actually feel that they would be better off being an Indian because the Bureau of Indian Affairs exists. (The reservation system, which does maintain segregation, was not really part of those laws, and was originally imposed by whites. Indians were basically herded onto them by whites after it was decided belatedly that maybe it wasn’t right to just kill them all.)

  3. “…for us to stay on the alternate path toward racial equality, we have to work at it continually. Even if this is ultimately a sisyphean task, and we can never reach a stable end point, the very act of trying will make us a better country in the long run.”

    An excellent example of how liberalism is a religion. One reference, dated and methodologically poor, and you hang an entire design for the culture around it. You will not see that because the religion is shared by CC’s original, the blogger, and the commenters.

    Your summation of the conservative argument about individual rights trumping others is less than half the explanation. Again, evidence that it is not that liberals do not agree with conservative arguments, they simply do not understand what they are. Not that this makes them any less certain.

    First, and before anything else can be learned, must come the humility that maybe, just maybe, there is an elephant in the room you are missing. No, not an elephant. Bad analogy on my part. There are many mice in the room. You must allow yourself to see at least one before you should dare to suggest policy. The rabbinic habit of switching sides before the argument closes might be of help.

  4. biotunes says:

    Yes, Idiot, you are certainly a shining example of humility.

  5. For once, I’ll agree with the Village Idiot that your summation of conservative views about rights isn’t the full argument. Your summation explains libertarian conservative views. There are plenty, probably a majority, of conservatives who favor societal welfare over individual rights – it’s just that their vision of societal welfare is pretty scary, and what they end up creating is even worse than what they attempt to create.


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