Thinking the Worst of People

An entirely different look at racism. Certainly controversial. This edition published by Corgi Books 1976.

People can be remarkably reluctant to shed their prejudices.  They may be more ingrained they we imagine, or would wish to imagine.  Yet science fiction, in its role of projecting what the future may be like, can offer hope that better understanding may become the rule rather than the exception.

One of the most famous instances in the realms of science fiction may be the first inter-racial kiss on American television in Plato’s Stepchildren, an episode of the original Star Trek series from 1968.  The embrace between Lieutenant Uhura (a black woman) and Captain Kirk (a white man) seems mild to us these days, but was controversial when first transmitted.  There is some doubt whether it was actually the first such kiss on US television, but this is the one people tend to remember.

Robert Heinlein made an attempt to tackle the question of racial prejudice in his 1964 novel Farnham’s Freehold.  At the outbreak of the Third World War, the Farnham family are catapulted into a distant future by an atomic explosion, where they encounter a totalitarian USA ruled by black despots who keep the white population in servitude.  The main character takes a fairly rational view of the situation – he sees his new master as “exactly like the members of every ruling class in history: honestly convinced of his benevolence and hurt if it was challenged.”  But readers nowadays may wonder whether simply inverting the (then) racial power structure gets across a message of equality.

At its heart, it’s a story of survivalism and the quest for freedom from oppression, but it has come in for strong criticism over the years because of stereotyping of supposed racial characteristics.  On the other hand, it didn’t ignore the problem of race relations as they were perceived in early 1960s USA, and tried to talk about it in an original way.  And not many other writers at the time did that.

But science fiction may still try to depict the future as free of racial (and other) prejudices.  The television series UFO, a live-action programme created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson who had previously made marionette series such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds, was set in what was then a future world of 1980.  It depicted a remarkably advanced society a mere decade away, and included aspects such as inter-racial romance.  In the 1971 episode Survival, Commander Straker, a white man who is in charge of the attempts to counter an alien invasion of Earth, observes that racial prejudice “burned itself out” in the mid-1970s – clearly, with hindsight, hugely optimistic.  But Lieutenant Bradley (who is black) makes the telling response that it is still there buried deep inside people.

There could be some truth in that.  In Are We All Racists? (Scientific American, August 2017), Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, describes recent association tests which may suggest that most people show an implicit bias towards white people over black people.  Even those who would not even remotely be considered racists, and even African-Americans who took the same test.  On the face of it, that seems worrying, though Dr Shermer argues that a conclusion based on assessing unconscious states of mind using familiar and emotional word association tests can be fairly dubious.  And this sort of thing doesn’t necessarily predict actual prejudicial behaviour anyway.

He also stresses that people’s attitudes have changed significantly over the past half a century, and can improve yet more as long as we focus our attention on what we’ve done right.  Even so, it’s a disturbing thought that prejudice might be embedded in each of us more deeply than we believe.

And if we can’t really cope, at a deep level, with recognising the need to respect other races who already share our own planet, but instead implicitly treat anyone who differs from us as inferior, how will we possibly cope with intelligent extraterrestrials when we eventually meet them?

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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