As unlikely as it might seem, racism and greed have similarities. My belief is that they come from a very ancient time when both of them served us well. We lived in small groups then, families, tribes. Now and then we would cross paths with another such group, and we could not be sure these guys didn’t want to kill us and steal our spears, so we treated everyone who looked a bit different with suspicion.
Likewise, if we killed an aurochs on a hunt, it would be supremely stupid to have a barbecue then go home, leaving 3,500 pounds of meat behind. So we took as much as the tribe could carry, fresh for the next few days, and smoked or dried for the future, a valuable hoard that might be the factor that allowed us to live through another tough winter.
If I’m right, racism and greed are built in. We don’t have a choice whether they are present: they are. They can never go away from any one of us, but we can learn to overcome them in ourselves.
Or not. If you were not convinced that racism is still amongst us, the Republican presidential race would certainly disabuse you of your naivety. The snarling rednecks at Trump rallies, burners of black churches in the Old South and various other nasties are valid reminders. African-Americans have been saying this all along, but for some of us it’s been a lesson in awareness, because we thought things were getting better on the race front.
The rise of the super-class of multi-billionaires, likewise, teaches us that greed is infinite. No amount of accumulated wealth is ever enough for the ones whose wealth exceeds the wealth of a dozen nations, who will go to any extreme to control the laws that give them even more money. This is not to say that wealth in itself is undesirable. What is undesirable is extraordinary wealth whose limitless accumulation and hoarding has the effect of hurting the rest of us, particularly the poor. And that’s exactly what has happened.
This brand of greed is also mixed with the ugly racism we have been treated to. In fact, it’s been the longstanding belief of conservatives that the only reason anyone is poor is that they are too lazy to work and get rich. A few lazy fools aside, this belief is essentially racism, and it isn’t going away no matter how many times independent proof is shown that it’s total nonsense.
Likewise, the ultra-rich who speak out to oppose infinite wealth are rare enough to be newsworthy.
So the question is: Given these intractable conditions that appear to be part of our DNA, what can be done to tame them?
Education and law. We all knew that, but both have been subverted. If there are other answers, they are not widely known. The great civil rights movements that have been debated and fought over before becoming law are the foundation. Brown vs. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act. But then, as if our progress was too swift, the Supreme Court, in one of the greatest nonsensical votes in history, informed us, to our surprise, that corporations are actually people, and are entitled to contribute unlimited cash to elections. This stupidity makes no sense any way you look at it, and has put democracy in a holding pattern until the slow wheels of justice grind out a new Amendment that can be approved by a sufficient number of states. Half a century is my guess.
There are many laws that benefit only the rich, laws like the carried interest provision of tax law, laws like the one that prohibits the government from bargaining for drug prices, and disallows us from buying them across the northern border, laws that allow corporations to set up a shell headquarters in low-tax Ireland, and so on.
The progress of education is similarly halted by conservative beliefs that the citizenry is divided into those who are white and honorable enough to receive an education and those on whom education is wasted because their skin is darker and they are therefore lazy. These forces are doing their best to subvert the entire idea of universal free public education by slipping the business world in edgewise. Their goal has a long history in business: make every item as cheaply as possible in order to boost profit, resulting in high profit and crappy products. The wealthy, of course, get top education in private schools, something most of us can’t afford, while public schools decline. The rest of the modern world, meantime, is making top quality education through graduate school free for everyone, sometimes even for non-citizens.
So our racism and greed are permanent parts of our individual makeup, I believe. If we are to fulfill the promise of a truly egalitarian society, we will have to find ways to overcome these tendencies. We have to find a way to control those who don’t get it, both the racists and the ultra-greedy. It will be a tough job.