Copernicus and Race

For tens of thousands of years, humanity believed that the earth was at the center of the universe.

It was in many ways an understandable belief.  Our ancestors watched as the Sun rotated around their seemingly fixed and immovable location by day and watched by night as the moon and stars did the same.  Eons passed in which humanity could scarcely imagine viewing images of Earth and other planets taken by man-made satellites hurling through outer space.  From our limited, landbound, inescapably personal perspective, the notion that the entire cosmos revolved around us was understandable.

With the publication of his book On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, Copernicus challenged that notion, initiating one of those most significant paradigm shifts in the history of human consciousness  It was an era when humanity had brought an entirely new level of rigor and focus to its observations of the natural world and was devising ever more complex and convoluted theories to explain the surprising movements of various celestial bodies while keeping the earth at the center of the universe.  Eventually, Copernicus offered a theory that explained all these confusing movements with simplicity and elegance.  Once you embraced the understanding that the earth revolved around the sun—not the other way around—everything fell into place.

From a scientific perspective, it was a major breakthrough representing a giant leap forward in our attainment of an accurate understanding of the workings of the universe.  From a psychological perspective, however, it was a wrenching, existentially disorienting shift met with resistance that endured for centuries.  The recontextualization of the self from the entity at the very center of all existence to a small and decidedly uncentral element of a vast and impersonal system is not easy on the ego or the soul.   Psychologically, we are forced to internalize the sense of humility demanded by the realization that the universe does not, fundamentally, revolve around us.  Spiritually, we are challenged to attain a consciousness we are but a small aspect of an immense creation that includes but vastly transcends us all.  It’s not only the case that we are no longer personally at the center; it’s also that in this new understanding, the very concept of “center” may no longer be useful. 

So what does the Copernican revolution have to do with matters of race and social change?

It turns out that a recognition of the systemic nature of racism demands a similar wrenching shift in consciousness for those who have not yet awakened to this reality.  In the current frequently dysfunctional dialogue around matters of race in America, it is not unusual for white people to respond to critiques of racial inequalities and injustices by proclaiming, “I’m not racist!”  These are individuals who aspire to treat others with respect, and who believe that as long as they are not actively, personally discriminating against people of color, then they are uninvolved in our nation’s racial injustices.  In a meaningful sense, it’s an attitude grounded in the assumption that our own inner lives exist at the center of the moral universe.  Our personal attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are the central forces around which all matters revolve.  If our intentions and actions are benign, there is nothing more to understand or discuss. 

To awaken to the systemic nature of racism is to become unmoored from this comforting illusion.  As with the Copernican revolution, an understanding of systemic racism demands a radical recontextualization of the self.  We are forced to confront a similar truth that rather than existing at the center of the moral universe, we are but a small and decidedly uncentral element of a vast and impersonal system that includes but vastly transcends us all.  It’s not that our personal attitudes and behaviors are irrelevant; it’s that we play an infinitesimally limited role in a system that is far larger than the self, and that system discriminates against others despite our own personal best intentions. 

In my own experience, I have found the journey to this consciousness to involve the sort of wrenching, existentially disorienting shift that I imagine accompanied the Copernican revolution.  In place of the comforting illusion that my moral responsibility for matters and race and social change begins and ends at the boundaries of my personal attitudes and behaviors, I have had to internalize a deep humility that recognizes that these injustices are embedded in a system that vastly transcends myself.  Spiritually, I have been challenged to decouple myself from the center of my own universe and see myself as just a small part of an incomprehensibly large and complex web of life defined by levels of vulnerability and interdependence that are in important ways scary to contemplate.  To confront the injustices embedded in this system, it is not enough to focus on my own inner life.  Their must be a complementary focus on joining with others to confront systemic forces far larger than myself. 

In the face of this paradigm shift, we are compelled to choose:  Ignorance or wisdom?  Illusion or truth?  Blindness or Insight?

We must each ask ourselves:  Which choice will I make?

Maybe It’s More Than Just a “Weird Trait”

In January 2016—deep in the election season for the 2016 presidential election—Politico ran a story with the title “The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter.”  Readers learned that the title referred to the trait of “authoritarianism”, which is a tendency to prefer authority figures who are strong, dominant, and controlling.  The article notes that this trait was assessed via four questions focused on child-rearing that were included in a political survey. Specifically, respondents were asked whether they think it is more important to have a child who is respectful vs. independent, obedient vs. self-reliant, well-behaved vs. considerate, and well-mannered vs. curious.  It turns out that if you believe that children should be respectful, obedient, well-behaved and well-mannered, you are an authoritarian. And when studied along with a host of other traits like race, gender, income, geographic location, etc, the authors found that authoritarianism was the one trait that proved to have statistically significant correlation with being a Trump voter.

The article notes that these four child-rearing questions were included on a survey with more typical questions asked in political surveys, including demographics, horse-race themed questions about the candidates (this was early in the primary season, when there were still many candidates in the race), and policy questions.  Given the title of the article, it’s clear that the authors were surprised by this finding and viewed it as a bizarre and unexpected discovery. There is a worldview implicit in their framing of the article: When it comes to presidential politics, parenting styles shouldn’t really matter. Policy stances, income, geography, demographics—these are factors that we usually use to explore and explain politics.  This finding about authoritarian child-rearing preferences is, well, weird.  

Perhaps it’s time rethink the worldview that leads to this attitude.

In my book Race and Social Change: A Quest, A Sudy, A Call to Action, I offer an analysis of matters of race and social change grounded deeply in the science of complex systems.  I note that living systems are organized according the logic of fractals, with similar patterns appearing across multiple scales of analysis, from the microcosm of the family to the macrocosm of global geopolitics.  I also note that that in human systems, the pattern that we see across all of these scales is that of the development away from simple hierarchy towards relational networks that are much more equal, interconnected, and interdependent.  It’s an underlying process that explains phenomena as diverse as transformations in women’s rights, movements towards racial equality, the rise of “flat” organizations, and global interconnectedness.

In the book, I also note that this process of development towards greater interconnectedness does not always progress in a smooth and unbroken trend; as with all processes of development, it often takes two steps forward followed by several steps back. Development progresses in jarring fits and starts. It’s a perspective that explains the movement towards greater equality for historically marginalized groups like women and people of color…and also the backlash against that movement.  It’s a perspective, grounded in science, that illuminates dynamics that we see all around us right now in important ways. (For a more complete review of these ideas, see the introduction and chapters 3 and 4 of my book).

From this perspective, the finding that authoritarian attitudes were the only trait that proved to have a statistically significant correlation with being a Trump voter is not at all weird; it is actually the factor that most directly and explicitly focuses on the essence of dynamics currently unfolding at all scales around the world right now.  Authoritarian parents have a clear and strong preference to operate within a simple hierarchy; they prefer dominant, controlling parents and obedient children in the microcosm of the family. It should come as no surprise that they prefer to call forth and co-create a similar authority arrangement at the macrocosmic scale of the nation. Similarly, egalitarian parents who prefer more independence, curiosity, and self-reliance in their children within the microcosm of the family seek to call forth and co-create similarly egalitarian, empowered dynamics at the macrocosmic scale of the nation.

Demographics, gender, specific policy positions, socio-economic status and other similar factors surely have exert some influence on people’s beliefs and actions,  but from this view they are relatively shallow, surface-level issues somewhat removed from the essence of what matters most in understanding recent events. “What kind of authority structure do I prefer to live in—and therefore co-create in the world around me?” is the unstated question at the center of both social change and the intense resistance to that change.  

It’s not a “weird trait”; it’s the heart of the matter, and we need to move beyond the worldview that fails to discern the centrality of this matter to dynamics of change unfolding at all levels of analysis from the micro to the macro.  If we are going to respond effectively to the challenges of this moment, we need to awaken to this higher consciousness regarding the nature of the change process in which we find ourselves immersed.