Imagine there is a community of highly intelligent, well-educated and mentally healthy people. One of its core, undisputed values is that some people are truly human and some others - just two-legged animals, who don't have any real human rights.
How can that belief form and sustain itself among sane people? Are there any other, better explanations other than the one below?
- Starting point: A world with technology level not lower than our current one.
- For some reason (e. g. one of the regional conflicts escalates into a major war) a significant portion of world's nuclear bombs is activated. For example, the US drops nukes on Russia, which activates its "guaranteed retaliation" system and makes Russian missiles launch and deliver bombs to the US automatically (even after everyone is dead).
- This exchange of nuclear strikes a) kills a large portion of the Earth's population and b) disrupts the DNA of all those, who survived, but were unprotected from radiation during the attack. The survivors and their children turn into animal-like, but human-looking creatures with limited intellectual abilities.
- The only people, who survived the attack and were not exposed to the brain-damaging radiation, are the military personnel in protected areas (like officers sitting in the protected NORAD facilities).
- Let's assume they are well-meaning and decide to re-build the civilization as we know it (preserve whatever is left of technology and cultural artifacts, make sure that the population of healty people increases).
- Let's further assume that if a healthy person interacts with a person exposed to radiation, their child will be animal-like.
- The goal of the healthy survivors is to gradually increase the number of healthy people. Therefore they forbid marriages between healthy and radiation-exposed people. They also invent other rules with the goal of protecting the small population of healthy survivors from the larger population of the people with damaged DNA.
- These rules are passed from generation to generation over decades/centuries. The healthy population lives in conditions as close to civilized as possible, while the radiation-exposed people go through all stages of evolution (from monkeys to homo sapiens) and their society structure evolves accordingly.
- After some time two things happen: 1) The effect of radiation subsides, i. e. the formerly animal-like people (those with damaged DNA) become human again. 2) The healthy survivor elite forgets the purpose, for which the discriminating rules were originally developed. As a result, it continues to treat the other group as animals (and is convinced that it's the right thing to do) despite the fact that now both groups consist of same types of people.
Update 1: How to tell healthy people apart from unhealthy ones?
Unhealthy people can be identified by at least two parameters:
- By appearance. An unhealthy person has unusual physical features - fur all over the body (like a monkey), too big/too small arms and all other kinds of deformities caused by exposure to radiation.
- By different psychological reactions. An unhealthy person may get more easily depressed than a normal one (for example).
So, if a person from the "elite" meets a healthy descendant of unhealthy parents, and the latter doesn't have any deformities nor abnormal behaviors, the former can assume that he or she is healthy.
In addition to the already presented answers, here's another scenario on how a person can develop discriminatory mindset: Imagine someone, who is treated badly by the environment and can't fight back. It may be easier for her to imagine that her opponents are not humans, but lower creatures. Discrimination (equating offenders with animals) can help cope with the emotional pain.
If a person says something bad to you, you may get upset. But if a dog barks at you, you won't. You just can't feel hurt emotionally by dogs, cats, worms and other lower-level creatures.
Examples of intelligent people acting racist
Some of the commenters said that if group A discriminates group B, then A is just a bunch of bad, racist people. I agree that they are bad and any serious analysis must answer (or attempt to answer) the question How did they racism start?. Saying X is just a racist a...e is equivalent to saying Car Y drives because of the automotive energy. Both statements do not help understand causes (of racism and what makes a car move) and do not help prevent it (which is the ultimate purpose of writing stories involving racism).
To make the statement about the car useful, the wrong concept of automotive energy needs to be broken down into right ones, i. e. phenomena that actually exist in reality (like electric, kinetic and other forms of energy, which are involved in car movement).
There was also at least one statement that if a person is racist, he or she cannot be highly intelligent, well-educated and mentally healthy. I don't agree with that because there are examples in history, when such people were acting and/or talking racist:
- John Locke, the great British intellectual, invested into slave trade (see section Constitution of Carolina in the Wikipedia article).
- The Nazis.
- Margaret Thatcher.
Let's look at the latter two examples in more detail.
The cornerstone of the Nazi ideology was that certain peoples (including Jews, the Slavs, Roma and Sinti) were subhumans. Some of the Nazis developed
- most advanced rocket of their time (on which both Soviet and American first rocket designs were based),
- first jet fighter and
- a cult, which even 70 years after is so appealing to some people (including Nazis victims) that governments need to prohibit it (Hitler's Mein Kampf is officially banned in Russia, Germany and Austria, probably for a reason).
All of these things could only be achieved by intelligent people. The scientists/engineers behind them probably knew about the implications of the Nazi ideology (unnecessary suffering of beings, who were humans like them), but decided to support it nonetheless.
I heard from several sources that Margaret Thatcher said in the mid-1980es that the number of Russians should be reduced from approx. 140 million to 14-15 millions:
Margaret Thatcher said once during her term in office that "Russians should be reduced to 15 million, the persons serving chinks and mines". It is open to guesswork why the Kremlin stayed unperturbed after the view surfaced, but when it was expressed the confused interpreter translated the phrase as 50 million and was corrected right away. By all means, this could not have been a slip of the tongue - it attested to the seriousness of the intent voiced by the Iron Lady with a talent for befriending imprudent Russians that Madeleine Albright held almost exactly the same in the mid-1990ies.
This statement was said during the detente after Gorbachev's accession to power, hence it cannot be justified by a Soviet threat to the West (this racist statement was said at a time, when that very threat was being eliminated).