How Envy Causes Racial Conflict
F. Roger Devlin, American Renaissance, November 19, 2021
This is adapted from remarks given at the 18th American Renaissance conference on November 13, 2021.
Even before I begin, I imagine most of you have probably sensed at one time or another that envy does play such a role in race relations. Many writers have alluded to it in passing, but I have never come across a thematic discussion. There is a tendency among our people to underestimate the importance of envy because Western civilization has been unusually successful in overcoming its effects, for reasons I will go into later. Today we are witnessing the collapse of this earlier resistance.
Envy is a negative feeling aroused by noticing an advantage enjoyed by someone else. Sometimes unfavorable comparisons of this kind motivate people to try to get a similar advantage for themselves. In that case, the result is emulation, not envy. The envious man dwells on his perceived inferiority, which humiliates him and often arouses a sense of impotence or self-pity. The differences in status that provoke such feelings need not be great. In fact, truly enormous differences such as between a peasant and a king tend not to arouse envy, because the peasant has a hard time even imagining himself in the king’s place. Invidious comparisons arise most easily among relative peers.
Envy is also distinct from any desire to possess the advantage in question. Very often, it is aroused by advantages which by their very nature cannot be transferred from one person to another, or by things that would be of no benefit to the envious man if he did come into their possession. So, it is not a form of covetousness. An envious man with a broken leg does not so much want to be whole again as to see everyone else break their legs. His concern is not primarily with his leg per se, but with a sense of inferiority in comparison with others, which he would like to avenge upon others. This is one reason schemes for redistributing wealth do not solve the problem of envy. A person with an envious disposition tends to see whatever confirms his envy, and he can always find new inequalities to focus on once one has been removed.
This essentially futile character of envy, its lack of constructive purpose, has traditionally caused it to be considered an especially shameful fault. Few people are prepared to admit to serious feelings of envy. Occasionally one may hear people say “I envy you” in relation to some small advantage, but the speaker does not mean he would rather see his friend lose the advantage or come to grief. Real envy is a serious matter. Crimes, including murder, have been motivated by it. People are therefore reluctant to admit, even to themselves, that they are envious. The fault often is disguised, for example, as righteous indignation or a zeal for justice.
To study envy and its effects, we would naturally want to look at some especially envy-ridden societies. Many of these turn out, not coincidentally, to be among the most primitive known to anthropology. In his book Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, the German scholar Helmut Schoeck has studied the ethnographic literature. A study of the Jivaro Indians of the western Amazon, for example, describes a difficult boat trip up a flooded river amid rains that had gone on for weeks. When the crew finally reaches its destination, one man says he will perform the magical rites necessary to make the rains continue “so that other travelers would have the same difficulties as we had.”
The ethnographer who reported this says that it is no isolated case: “When the Indians try to produce rain by magical means they nearly always do so merely out of wickedness, that is, to cause their fellow tribesmen harm or annoyance,” rather than to make crops grow, for instance. In the story cited, the object of envy was not even any definite person, but a hypothetical class of possible future travelers. This is an unusually clear example of envious behavior since the man could not benefit in any way from the difficulties he proposed to create for others. His own hardship was in the past. But the memory of it caused him to begrudge others an easier time of it.
My favorite ethnographic account, however, is of the Siriono Indians of Eastern Bolivia. When a Siriono hunter manages to kill an animal, he dare not be seen bringing it back the village. He finds a hiding place for it and returns to the group feigning dejection over his supposedly unsuccessful hunt. Only after dark does he return to retrieve and eat the meat. This is because any Siriono bold enough to eat in broad daylight usually finds himself surrounded by a small crowd of hungry fellow-villagers staring enviously at him. Most Siriono in such a situation do not share their food, and the staring bothers them. Siriono are constantly accusing one another of stealing food, which is another reason to keep anything edible hidden. This in turn leads to accusations of hoarding, and the tribe has found no way out of these sentiments.
As we see from this example, envy is harmful not only (or even mainly) to the envious man himself, but also to its object, the successful man, even where “success” means only having gotten food. Life in envy-ridden societies is haunted by a fear of arousing envy in others. The Siriono practice of hiding food is a form of envy-avoidance, and it is costly. The tribe is unlikely ever to become prosperous, for no one has discovered how to raise prosperity simultaneously for everyone. Someone always has to prosper first, and this leads to envy.
Schoeck even found examples of tribes without any concept of personal success or achievement at all. Anyone who prospers is thought to have done so at the expense of someone else. In order to justify this view, goods of which the supply is not limited are treated as if they were scarce. Among the Dobu Islanders of Melanesia, any man who farms more yams than his neighbors is accused of having stolen them, usually through black magic. People will not admit the possibility that a man might be eating better than his neighbor because he has put in more honest work tilling his yam field. All prosperity is caused by the deprivation of others. The result, of course, is a general fear of good crops, and an entire society is kept at the level of bare subsistence.
In the West, a man lacking an advantage he finds in his neighbor may console himself with the thought that the unequal distribution is the effect of mere luck, an impersonal force for which no one is responsible. But we find that envy-ridden primitive tribes sometimes lack any concept of luck. In such a society, anyone who suffers a misfortune automatically attributes it to black magic on the part of someone who envies him. There even exist peoples with no concept of natural death. All deaths, however elderly the person, are ascribed to malicious magic. If an outbreak of some disease kills certain tribesmen and not others, the explanation is that the survivors practiced witchcraft. At the root of all such beliefs is the incorrect assumption that one man’s gain must mean some other man’s loss, as if there were a fixed amount of success or prosperity in the world, which can only be distributed in varying amounts.
People in these simple societies think it is somehow normal for everyone’s situation to be identical, even though reality never matches this expectation. Since they do not understand the real causes of inequalities, they explain all deviations from it by assuming the use of magic. The man with less is thought to practice magic out of envy, but the man with more is assumed to have gotten it through magic of his own.
Envy avoidance takes many forms, sometimes including concealment not only of prosperity but even of any striving for it, through work, for example. Schoeck cites the Lovedu of Southern Africa. If one passes a field where Lovedu are working and calls out “working hard, eh?” they respond: “We’re hardly working!” Conspicuous hard work might provoke envy of the wealth others suspect might result. The Lovedu avoid all competition. In their language, the word for good or virtuous is supposedly identical to the word for slow. When the Lovedu pray to their ancestors for help or favor, they add the qualifier: “but only in the same measure as others.”
Among some primitive peoples, the successful man averts envy by apparent generosity. Some Polynesian fishermen prefer to give away the only fish they have caught all day rather than run the risk that a man who failed to catch any fish will go about saying: “That fish he caught, he did not give it to me but kept it for himself.” This preemptive generosity is called “the blocking of envy.” Unfortunately, such appeasement does not always work. An envious man may view his benefactor as an enemy.
Perhaps some of you have run into people incapable of accepting even small favors. They resent the idea of being under an obligation. This is because the ability to bestow a benefit is a kind of superiority, and can arouse feelings of humiliation in the beneficiary. The more sincere the generosity, the clearer the benefactor’s superiority. For this reason, it has often been observed that the better an envious man is treated, the worse he gets. Even raising him to one’s own level may not solve the problem, for any equality so established is artificial and the beneficiary can never rid himself of the memory that it resulted from charity.
Sometimes resentment and suspicion of benefactors can be found on a mass scale. Following the Second World War, the Marshall Plan was viewed with extreme skepticism in parts of Europe. If Americans were helping rebuild their ruined countries, people reasoned, it could only be part of a cunning plot to distract public attention from another and larger flow of wealth out of Europe and towards America itself. Such people often admitted that they had not yet been able to uncover the precise workings of the swindle, but a swindle there had to be. No one could possibly be trying to benefit them merely for the sake of benefitting them.
According to Schoeck, such attitudes are common in Latin America. One study of lower-class village life in Mexico found that “doing favors is rare and creates suspicion.” When children impulsively show kindness to outsiders, their parents “correct” this misbehavior. Doing favors is associated with more educated people who, it is assumed, do them in order to get favors in return.
During the 1960s and 70s, Latin Americans developed an influential body of economic thought called “dependency theory.” It is out of fashion now for good reason: Predictions based upon it have been falsified, and there is too much it cannot explain. But it is a wonderful example of the kind of thinking Schoeck found among primitive tribes translated into more sophisticated language. According to dependency theory, Western prosperity causes poverty in the rest of the world. The West controls the terms of international trade, locking up the market for technology and sophisticated manufactured goods while forcing everyone else to supply them with raw materials, thus condemning them to perpetual backwardness.
There was an obvious racial aspect to dependency theory, or at least to its popularity in the third world, with the white man like the well-fed Dobu islander who must have spirited his extra yams out of other men’s gardens. Whether Melanesian headhunter or third world economist, the constant claim of the envious man is that the advantages enjoyed by others were got unfairly and at their expense.
The downfall of dependency theory among serious economists, by the way, was its inability to explain the rise of East Asian countries, most of which started out with fewer natural resources than Latin America. The case is exactly analogous to the inability of our opponents to explain why the “white supremacists” who supposedly designed IQ tests should have done so in a way that lets Asians outscore whites.
Envy has long blinded men to the real causes of economic prosperity, which include intelligence, hard work, a future orientation, and an ability to calculate risk and defer gratification. To these, Helmut Schoeck’s review of the literature allows us to add another: the possibility of disregarding envy, whether because it is not prevalent in one’s society or because one is bold enough to defy it.
Schoeck mentions an awareness of this among the Tiv people of northern Nigeria. Most better-off Tiv disperse their wealth among their dependents and kinsmen, or by paying for elaborate religious sacrifices. But a few men capitalize on their wealth to get even more. They are not intimidated by the possible envy of others. Such men are said to have “strong hearts,” and are both respected and feared.
The Tiv believe envy can be defied only by those with a magical essence called tsav. Anyone who presumes to excel at anything, even dancing or singing, is thought to need at least some tsav. But the preeminent example of a “man of tsav” among them is the rich, healthy man with a large family and extensive, productive farmlands. Without loads of tsav, he could never ward off the envy-inspired black magic of others.
As I said, European civilization has historically been successful — perhaps uniquely successful — in overcoming the debilitating effects of envy, even to the extent that we tend to forget its dangers and badly underestimate its influence on others. Post-World War II development theorists generally assumed that teaching a few technical or agricultural skills to a few third-world peasants would be enough for them to spread quickly from village to village, rapidly increasing the wealth of entire societies. But people act to maximize prosperity only when they are not afraid they will provoke envy. In such a society, peasants might not practice new skills at all or do so secretly.
How did the West tame envy? Is there a racial factor involved? Unfortunately, I am not aware of any research on this. Schoeck emphasizes the influence of Christianity. The pre-Christian Greeks were keenly aware of the problem of envy, and believed that excessive human prosperity might even arouse envy in the gods, who could then bring overly successful men to grief. In contrast, the transcendent God of Christianity is so far above the human level that any thought of his envying his own creatures is absurd. There are a number of passages in the Gospels against envy, the clearest probably being the parable of the workers in the vineyard who are paid the same amount whether they labored all day or only began an hour before sunset. Christianity teaches that the advantages that commonly provoke envy are of no consequence in man’s relation to God, in which the king enjoys no advantage over the pauper.
But an awareness of the harmful effects of envy is not unique to Christianity, and other religious traditions have developed ways of combatting them. The essential point is that the envious man must somehow have his attention drawn away from the advantages enjoyed by others and toward realistic goals within his own power. This is the only way he can begin to act constructively to improve his own situation. Historically, various religious conceptions have refocused men’s attention this way.
The most cursory look at the sort of thinking now dominant in the West shows that it is doing the reverse. Anti-racism never concerns itself with the spiritual self-improvement of its beneficiaries. It is concerned with worldly goods, but does nothing to help people improve their lot through effective means such as learning skills or deferring gratification and planning for the future. Its constant message is: You have less because the white man has more, and he has more because he has rigged the game in his favor.
“Critical race theory” is a pretentious name for what is in fact a reemergence of the most primitive, envy-driven form of reasoning. Emotionally, its appeal is identical to that of the Dobu Islander’s belief that his neighbor is eating better only by spiriting yams out of other people’s gardens. And it is not merely a rationalization of and justification for envy but, insofar as it is successfully propagated, it’s a means of creating envy where none previously existed. Critical race theory inculcates resentment among children to whom it might otherwise not have occurred to compare themselves invidiously with their white neighbors, and directs their attention away from practical ways to improve their own lives. As we have seen, many societies have been dominated by envy, but I cannot think of another case of a regime systematically trying to maximize envy in the rising generation. It is genuinely cruel to the non-white children who are supposedly its intended beneficiaries, but as we would expect from envy-inspired behavior, the aim appears to be to harm us rather than to help them.
The harm involves first of all the inculcation of guilt, which is the modern counterpart of the primitive’s fear of envious black magic. Nonracial precedents for such guilt are easy to find. You have probably seen, perhaps on some liberal neighbor’s bumper-sticker, the injunction “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” At bottom, this is the same Dobu-Islander fallacy of assuming there must be a fixed number of yams, so that if you take more than your share, others must go hungry.
Socialist intellectuals of the last century poisoned their lives with this sort of guilt, imagining that any enjoyment they permitted themselves amounted to robbing the toiling masses. Today, progressive academics with no understanding of how wealth is created advocate massive capital transfers to the third world in order to assuage their guilt over living in a prosperous society. It cannot be overemphasized that this is a fallacy, that the world’s good things do not exist in any fixed quantity and, therefore, enjoying a few of them does not deprive anyone else.
Today, young whites are being targeted for prosperity-guilt. Many, of course, are not even prosperous, living in communities ravaged by opioids and long-term unemployment. Yet these children are now being taught that they are responsible for the problems of the ghetto. Since this cannot directly benefit anyone in the ghetto, we are forced to ask ourselves what is really going on. Don’t let yourself be put off by any talk about the need to “foster difficult conversations about race.” The inculcation of guilt and resentment is not a conversation, and the children involved are too young to talk meaningfully about race anyway.
The most important historical precedent for critical race theory’s deliberate cultivation of racial guilt and resentment, I believe, is communism, which harnessed class-envy not to improve the lives of the working class, but to subvert society and let a tiny, ideologically-defined elite rule over the ruins, unconstrained by law or custom. In the same way, the only beneficiaries of critical racial theory are likely to be those who are already powerful.
But critical race theory is simply the most recent in a series of bad policies due in part to a failure to understand the social effects of envy. Racial integration already followed the same pattern more than half a century ago. Envy is a phenomenon of proximity; distance, both social and physical, tends to diminish it by making comparison harder. At one time, segregation served this important social function. Whether averting envy was among the purposes of those who started it in the late 19th century I do not know, but it was certainly an effect of their actions.
In his book Race and Education, the late Raymond Wolters offers many examples of black racial resentment enflamed by integration. Whites’ participation in class discussions, for example, appeared to some blacks “as an arrogant display, a deliberate flaunting of knowledge that downgrades other class members.” Some suspected the only reason white children even bothered working for good grades was to look better than blacks. One black girl, asked why she picked on a smaller white girl, said she was annoyed by the girl’s “attitude in class. She knows all the answers. She gets them right all the time.” It may have been wiser to segregate the races and let people suspect black children were less smart than to integrate them and remove all doubt.
One of the commonest effects of school integration was a rise in vandalism. Wolters notes a dramatic instance that occurred in Topeka, Kansas, the school system directly at issue in the Brown decision. In 1970, a principal refused to authorize an assembly on the Thursday of his school’s official “Black Culture Week” celebration. There had already been assemblies and presentations that week, and by Thursday this principal thought that enough instruction time had been lost. In response to his refusal, a group of black students set fire to the school auditorium, doing over $27,000 worth of damage.
Vandalism is destruction without any corresponding gain to the vandal, and sometimes even involves effort or risk. Such acts are commonly described as senseless, but we can often begin to make sense of them once we understand envy. Schoeck discusses a case in which someone painstakingly slashed the tires of 20 cars in a single night. Detectives could not discover any motive. But Schoeck asks whether it is really so hard to put oneself in the position of a young lout who has failed his driver’s test and is driven into a rage by the sight of a row of shiny new cars waiting for their lucky owners. He quotes a similar case in which a man arrested for setting fire to eight cars told the police: “I couldn’t afford to own an automobile . . . and I didn’t want anyone else to have one.” Vandalism was better than stealing a car.
In the 1950s, at the same time as school desegregation, many white liberals began to worry that schools in white neighborhoods were getting more funding than those in black neighborhoods. A campaign to build new, state-of-the-art schools for the underprivileged was launched. The immediate result was widespread vandalism. In 1958, the New York Department of Education was forced to replace 160,000 windows and make good the damage done by 75 cases of arson. Schoeck notes that envy was probably the motive:
To the slum child, the daily contrast between his “home” and the school’s air-conditioned chrome-and-glass luxury is an irritant. If he is burdened with learning difficulties, he sees school as a world to which he will never belong. He knows that when his schooldays are over there will be no comparable place of work waiting for him. What, then, is more probable than that he should give free rein in vandalism to his rage and resentment? The culprits may be turning against too perfect an environment which they themselves did not help create.
Within a few years, schools were being built with fewer windows, and they had iron bars. Many noted the resemblance to prisons.
Eventually the envy directed against successful white students and shiny new buildings began to include high-achieving blacks. They found themselves accused of being sellouts and “acting white.” Roland Fryer of Harvard devised a quantitative study of this “acting white” effect. He discovered that in integrated classrooms, as the grade-point averages of black students increases beyond the level of a B+, they tend to have fewer friends. In schools that were almost all black, he found “no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity.” A president of Atlanta’s Spelman College also noted that “an oppositional identity that disdains academic achievement has not always been characteristic of black adolescent peer groups. It seems to be a post-desegregation phenomenon.” The reason should be obvious: invidious comparisons depend upon proximity. School integration is a classic example of the harm that can be done by failing to understand the importance of envy in human relations.
Most of Schoeck’s examples of envy are of people in more or less homogeneous societies, but he does cite one example of its influence on group dynamics that is based on a study of a small Colorado town around 1950. The town consisted of two well-defined groups, a white, English-speaking upper stratum and a slightly larger Spanish-speaking population with lower occupations. The dominant, English-speaking group, though having a certain caste spirit, was open enough to absorb the most capable members of the Spanish-speaking group. Other Spanish-speakers saw them as traitors who had sold out to the Anglos, practicing subservience to them while climbing over the backs of their own people. Even Spanish-speakers who had attained an only slightly better-than-average economic position were accused of arrogance and viewing other members of their own group with contempt.
Obviously, this behavior of Spanish-speakers in Colorado in 1950 perfectly parallels the more recent controversy over successful black students accused of “acting white.” Then as now, an envious group may be driven to embrace even failure itself as a badge of identity and claim to moral superiority. There is nothing new under the sun.
I’d like to focus now on the charge of arrogance that appears in both the school integration anecdotes and Schoeck’s Colorado study. It is classic envy to accuse others of “thinking they are better.” Most often, this is psychological projection: It is not the envied man who thinks he is better, but the envier who perceives himself as inferior. How likely do you think it is that even a single white child in America works for good grades specifically to humiliate black classmates? And yet black children are perfectly capable of imagining this. Whites do not compare themselves to blacks; they are far more likely to compare themselves to other whites.
As you know, American Renaissance has enemies. A lot of people would like nothing better than to shut us down by force. Most of them have little idea what actually happens at our conferences. They have never bothered to find out. The visceral anger they express toward our generally friendly and mild-mannered attendees and writers usually amounts to the accusation: “You think you are better.” They imagine we have these meetings so we can congratulate ourselves on our superiority and pour contempt on the rest of the human race. But do any of you actually know a white person who would travel hundreds of miles for that?
To state the obvious, our purpose in discussing IQ, for example, is not to pat ourselves on the back, but to refute the notion that we are conspiring to keep other people down. Equality of natural endowments is not something in our power, or anyone’s power, to grant. Natural selection is an impersonal process that from the human point of view scarcely differs from chance. But, as I noted earlier, there are primitive societies that altogether lack any concept of chance or luck. They think all differences between men are the result of intentional action, usually magical. Some similar superstition probably underlies the thinking of our enemies.
Occasionally we discuss the high proportion of human achievement originating in Europe and its people. Until fairly recently, this historical fact was considered so obvious that it was not worth talking about. And this does not mean, by the way, that Western man ever sought to deny the genuine achievements of others; a self-confident people feels no need to begrudge due recognition to others. Today, the basic facts of Western accomplishment are under attack, and a response has become necessary. Many of you will be familiar with the important work done by Prof. Ricardo Duchesne in this area. Once again, self-congratulation is not the point. Speaking personally, contemplation of the vastness of Western achievement is more likely to inspire me with a feeling of humility than one of pride or arrogance. Measured against what our ancestors wrought, our personal achievements are laughably modest.
It has sometimes occurred to me that the biggest problem with the idea of racial equality is that whites are the only people who can be made to believe in it. The resentment so often evinced towards whites arises deep in the limbic part of the brain and thus remains uninfluenced by egalitarian exhortation, which operates only at the more superficial level of the cortex and rational thought. That is why decades of efforts have done so little to assuage feelings of racial inferiority.
What can be done to combat racial envy? This is not an easy question. If we look to our own tradition of ethical thought developed over many centuries within Christendom, we find envy characterized as a sin. It is one of the seven cardinal sins upon which most more specific sins hinge. Sin is an essentially spiritual phenomenon which means, among other things, that it must be combatted at the level of the individual soul. There is no possible political or legislative program to eliminate envy any more than pride or wrath. These are timeless temptations intrinsic to the human condition.
As already stated, the best way to overcome envy is to have goals of one’s own. Once a man begins to concentrate on achieving something through his own efforts, invidious comparisons with others begin to seem like distractions. He loses interest in them. But this shift in focus is not the kind of thing one man can achieve on behalf of another, still less that one social or racial group can confer upon another. It is a spiritual challenge for each individual. The best we can probably do is to remove direct incitements to envy such as critical race theory. Also, as previously noted, distance can diminish the effects of envy, but under a regime of forced and micro-managed association, this is impossible to achieve.
Another lesson is that we should not take too literally the accusations about slavery and colonialism constantly cast in our teeth. No one would care about the sins of our great-grandfathers, real or imagined, if we were not more successful than certain other races today. It is observed superiority that inspires resentment, not the wrongs of past centuries, which are at most post facto ways of rationalizing resentment.
But perhaps the most important lesson for us to learn is the futility of appeasement. As Helmut Schoeck observes, people who find themselves the targets of envy have difficulty responding rationally. In particular, they are prone to imagine envy arises as a direct consequence of their being better off and will, therefore, necessarily wane if even unrealistic demands are pandered to. American Renaissance has run countless stories about racial pandering, as you know. Repulsive as it is, a certain amount might be tolerable if it were effective. But in the long run, it never is. As noted, envious people often get worse, the better they are treated. The more generous we are in benefitting the envious, the more clearly we demonstrate (in their eyes) our own superiority. The best we can probably do is to insist upon two truths: 1) that any advantages we may enjoy are not the cause of others being deprived of them, and 2) that the future of other racial groups is in their own hands, not ours.