Gary Brecher once pointed out, in a podcast I think, that American exceptionalism dominates the American mindset. As he noted, this actually takes two forms. The more remarked-on form is from the right, whereby America is the last, best hope for everything good in the world. But there’s a left-wing version too – that America is the source of everything bad, and that the world would all be right except for the uniquely bad influence and history of America.
And while both are silly, the latter version seems somehow less studied. Which is a pity, because a broader view about how America compares with the rest of the world is actually quite illuminating.
The largest of the American Original Sins is of course racism. America is, so the story goes, not only the most racist country on the planet, but uniquely cursed because of its long legacy of slavery. This has forever poisoned the relations between the races, leading to the never-ending garment-rending and hysteria that characterises any discussion of race in the US.
The USA had slavery, it’s true. Over 300,000 slaves were imported from Africa. This creates a difficult legacy, it’s true. But just how uniquely difficult is the US experience with slavery? How much, in other words, could this actually explain?
Well, fortunately history has furnished us with another much larger slave power in the Americas. Brazil over its history had over 4.9 million slaves arrive. If the USA's slavery history is responsible for the stupidity of modern day race relations, surely Brazil must be many times worse!
In fact, race relations in Brazil are much, much better. Brazil actually manages to achieve what most of US claims to want to achieve – a mixed race country that is largely harmonious in terms of race relations. When you walk around here, it's striking how many genuine mixed-race groups of people there are - not only couples, but larger groups of men chatting away, covering all complexions from white to olivey to Hispanic-looking to black. In America, the vast majority of genuinely mixed race groupings you see are in commercials. When was the last time you saw a black guy, a Hispanic guy and white guy all hanging out together in real life?
And if you ask Brazilians, they'll mostly tell you that they don't have a race problem. Does this mean that every outcome is distributed identically across every possible combination of ancestry? No, but then again, neither is geography. The north is poor and black, the south richer and whiter, but with plenty of variation in both cases. More importantly, if “identical distributions” is your definition of 'no racism', I'll thank you for providing me a single socioeconomic variable of any importance that's so distributed, in any country on earth, in any period in history. No hurry, I'll wait for you to come back.
One of the things that's hardest to explain to Americans is just how stifling is the atmosphere of debate about race in the US, poisoning honest discussion of such a large range of topics and fueling antagonism and resentment at every turn. I suspect it's hard for Americans to see just how striking this phenomenon is, because it's just what you've grown up with. It's only us foreigners that tend to notice.
If there's one thing that Brazil teaches, it's that you cannot simply attribute this to slavery. Race paranoia, notwithstanding the observations at the start of this essay, actually is a very American pathology. It is also one that it is eagerly exporting to the rest of the world, with wholly deleterious consequences.
So if it's not slavery, what is it?
Well, here's one thought. Maybe the way to get people less pissed off about race is, ooh I dunno, stop encouraging them through the media, schools, and universities to view every single issue through the prism of a race war.
Maybe the solution to hypersensitivity is not actually encouraging ever more sensitivity. Maybe the solution is for everybody to chill the hell out. At the moment, the fact that people have resentments along racial lines is consider the most important reason for permanently fretting over racism. But what if this is actually the source of the problem? What if the permanent hypersensitivity is actually a significant source of the antagonism in the first place?
Perhaps this sounds too simplistic. Perhaps it is. There is a certain ‘don’t think of an elephant’ aspect to it, I’ll admit. But at a minimum, perhaps dial down the permanent ELEPHANT WATCH RED ALERT ELEPHANTS ON THE NEWS 24/7 if you want people to do so.
Or if you dislike my answer, come down here and figure out your explanation of why things seem to work so much better. Because ‘America has a uniquely racist past’ simply won’t cut it.