Race is nonsense


If you’re American, you grew up with the idea of race, whether you liked it or not. This would be self-evident to black people, whose second-class status is impressed on them every day. To white people it might be less obvious, but it’s there. I was a kid during the 1960s, and I lived in an all-white community. My family was liberal. We heard about the civil rights movement on the news; we supported it and voted for politicians who supported it. But the belief in the reality of race was transmitted to my consciousness simply by being in the culture—I couldn’t help having prejudiced thoughts, fear of the “other,” an overriding self-conscious sense of difference, because of the prominent place that race issues occupied in what you might call the national psyche.

When we talk about racism it can mean a lot of different things. There is basic racial fear and prejudice. Then there’s discrimination, which goes hand in hand with the former. Institutional racism is discrimination writ large—the supremacy of a particular race as the assumed and established system of political and economic power. Finally there is racism as an ideology, which posits race as a system of biological superiority and inferiority. All these aspects flow into and mix with one another in various permutations.

For a white liberal or progressive during the last forty years, the standard belief was that no race was superior to any other, that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities, and that racism was a problem that needed to be dealt with. I suppose this was a good start—good intentions must count for something. But it never occurred to most of us to challenge the very idea of race itself. We just assumed that there were different races of people. Well, wasn’t it obvious?

Xenophobia would appear to be as old as humanity, but the ancients don’t talk about race in the modern sense of the word. Herodotus mentions people with dark skin, but doesn’t say or even imply that such people are essentially different than other people—his report that the Ethiopian men were said to be the tallest and handsomest in the world would certainly contradict any notions of superiority. Slavery was usually a result of capture in war. In the ancient world, a slave would often look just like a free man. A slave might be a foreigner, but there was no racial standard at work.

It was only a thousand years later or so, when the Europeans discovered that the world was bigger than they assumed, that the concept of race was born, or at least came into its own. Some historians have said that the Europeans were struck with fear and dread when they saw the black skin of the Africans, along with their unfamiliar dress and customs. I suppose the narrow and repressive nature of Christian culture would contribute to such a response, but it still doesn’t add up for me. No elemental fear of “blackness” can account for what happened. Europeans were familiar with Arabs, Turks, and other Muslim peoples who were often dark-complexioned. There was plenty of fear and hatred there, but it was basically religious, not racial.

What the Europeans saw were people at an earlier stage of political and technological development. This meant that they could be exploited on a scale never before attempted. By enslaving Africans, the Europeans would gain a source of labor that would build huge empires in a very short period of time. For various reasons, it was less practical to enslave the natives of America and Asia, but the Europeans went about conquering and colonizing their lands with equal energy.

That which we call self-interest—in the unenlightened sense of a quest for power and wealth—creates in its wake the ideas that justify it. It was to the European’s advantage to believe that Africans, Asians and American Indians were an inferior type of human, because it provided a rationale for what they did. European culture had developed to the degree that it needed rationales. It had not developed to the point, other than in the case of advanced thinkers like Montaigne, that it could tell when it was lying to itself in order to gain an advantage.

A gradual moral awakening led to the abolishment of slavery, but not of the idea of race. Along came various white scientists telling us that the white brain is bigger and better than the black one. We’ve seen an endless succession of theories regarding heredity, eugenics, “survival of the fittest.” Every decade some new book comes out correlating race with intelligence or performance—remember The Bell Curve? It never seems to occur to these “thinkers” and the audience that listens to them, that such theories will always support the dominant social order. If a particular system of supremacy is in place, then statistics can always be produced that seem to establish this supremacy as natural and necessary. Self-interest rules the discourse, and those who argue against it face an uphill battle, because people who enjoy the benefits of privilege and power don’t want to believe that it’s undeserved.

But science can’t be corrupted forever. There’s a stubborn impulse at its core—the search for empirical truth. What we’re seeing now, when we really get down to it and sweep cultural preconceptions aside, is that race is not a valid biological concept. There is no actual, measurable physical phenomenon that corresponds to it. Now, in addition to skin color we think of hair and facial characteristics. They all vary in ways that do not necessarily accompany one another. The latitudinal difference in the intensity of the ultraviolet component of sunlight, which is correlated to skin color, is not directly related to whatever factors have resulted in the type of hair or the shape of the nose, etc. Their significance is merely ethnographic, not biological except in the most general evolutionary terms. When people resided in the same place for a few hundred thousand years, their skin color, their hair, their eyes, developed in certain ways. The people who lived in a somewhat different climate a few mountain ranges away may have had a different skin shade, but similar hair and the same eyes. In the modern world, with more and more contact between different people and regions, these characteristics become more and more diverse. If my mother is Italian and my father is from Brazil, what race am I? If my skin is dark, the old thinking would be that I’m “black.” What does it really mean objectively? Nothing. It is nonsense that has been enshrined in the public mind as a way of framing the social order as if it were the natural order.

I’m not advocating that we stop talking about racism. People who are oppressed because of race have no choice but to pay attention to race. A black person in America is not going to be “colorblind,” simply because race is the rationale for his or her inequality and subjection. But what we’re talking about is the social order, the system of white supremacy (or any such supremacy, for that matter—it just so happens in history that it turned out to be “white”). We’re talking about a system of power and domination, not about racial characteristics, biological or natural or genetic.

There are also, of course, the commonalities of culture that nurture people in their families and communities — similarities of language, customs, ways of thinking; the shared history that every group has. But that’s not “race,” really—that’s the human condition, that’s what culture is.

And white people especially need to talk openly about racism. Right-wing groups try to smother honest speech on this topic, playing on white people’s desire to avoid feeling guilty. It’s not about guilt, it’s about freedom. Race is a shackle of the mind that prevents us from speaking the truth without fear. It constricts our understanding of the human as such. It’s like an ancient taboo that has power only through silence. When we wake up and look around we see centuries of talk about race, about the superiority or inferiority of people, evaporate into the mist of illusion from which it came. It was a huge potent brew of nonsense, hypnotizing us into submission, into accepting the worst aspects of our character, our greed and fear and hatred, as the truth of our nature.


~ by cdash on March 13, 2008.

10 Responses to “Race is nonsense”

  1. You hit the nail on the head about the difference in technological advancement. There’s always been the fear of The Other, but as you said, a lot of it was religious – the Jews and their ‘weird’ rituals to the Romans (as they shuffled on down to tell Jupiter that he was The Man, the Ottoman Turks, etc etc. What’s disconcerting, even in the face of genetic discoveries that have proven there is no difference besides surface phenomena like eye and hair color, is how ingrained these ways of thinking are.

    But, there always has to be a bad guy, and race, unfortunately, is easier to latch on to in our exceedingly visually stimulated culture.

  2. good entry.

  3. Very comprehensive post, Dashiell. You definitely covered the waterfront. I like the “Brazil” reference quite a bit and the “skin color” issue as opposed to the “race” issue in America. I’m kind of tired of writing the same of shit everytime, but this particular racism and guilt and pseudo-science is really an American phenonmenon. The great un-read guest post by THE BLACK SNOB really gets at a lot of this stuff at a very deep level. Read it if you like. Pass if the idea bores you. But there’s something else to consider here. I believe that the value of slave labor in the United States was so great that a special “uniquely american” apporach to race: the “one drop rule,” the “brown paper bag rule,” all of the modern code like “urban,” “personal responsibility,” “self-esteem,” “the importance of religion,” and all of that stuff was harsher than in most colonial environments and remains more toxic in America because the “reparations” argument has tremendous validity.

    I’ve got White skin, but did not grow up in an all-White neighborhood. I grew up in a mixed neighborhood in NYC. I learned to speak Spanish as a boy and so when I ran into some political problems in the States, I moved to Panama. Down here, we just don’t do “race” or “identity politics.” One loses all sense of race or ethnicity or religion or sexual preference pretty quickly because everyone’s mixed up. It’s a once and future world cross-roads. That’s pretty nice. Or at least it’s less stressful that the environment in the USA I left behind.

    But lo and behold, what’s this I spy with my little eye? If I ever come back to the States I’m going to find myself, having gotten deeper and deeper in the culture here as it is, probably hated equally by Whites for having a South American orientation and by Blacks for the same reason because for some reason Latin=Clinton=KKK up there. There’s some truth to Panama=Bill Clinton because he was responsible for all the economic prosperity here by just pulling out the US Military and CIA, allowing Panamanians to draft their own ocnstitution, and “permit” ex-ante Panama to be “aganostic” on the “war on terror.”

    But I really don’t give a shit. For one, I know that I personally feel no guilt because I didn’t do anything to anybody. My family didn’t do anything to anybody. Unless, you consider labor and left-wing street politics to be part of the Union=Clinton=KKK vibe. Or if my distrust of Extremist Christianity is also somehow now racist, I guess I’m guilty. But I don’t feel any guilt in the slightest. I’m a secular humanist and as such I like to feel kinship with most people and I don’t require anything of my friends other than that I enjoy their company. If some combination of being a fluent Spanish speaker and having a traditional, class-based, political philosophy now makes me anti-African American, well that’s their pathology, not mine.

    All I know is that the “black” per capita population of Panama is greater tha the “black’ per capita population of the USA and there is every other shade of skin and ethnicity and culture and sub-culture here and I’ve never heard race discussed in the way it’s discussed in the USA. It just never comes up. The political debate is over economic issues and there’s also no sense of any impropriety in describing someone by their skin color or ethnicity or whatever.

    That’s more or less what it’s like in the rest of South America. Western Europe’s getting there but the US is lagging. It’s always about this weird way of discussing or not discusing race in the US because boy you sure can’t discuss “class.”

    I believe and most of the rest of the developed world believes that which science has proven, that, for example, a Kenyan and a Swede are identical. I fear that the US is behind this way because of maybe some weird HOPE that slavery will come back. Or just anyway to keep such subjects as “class” and “reparations,” out of the political debate.

    I have to say that the whole “Bell Curve” concept on one hand and the whole “White People Are Shitty At Dancing” or whatever nonsense is pretty weird. Most countries with large mixed populations just don’t have that kind of thing. Unless, maybe as a joke among good friends.

    I don’t know what to make of any of this. I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with it anymore.

    Well, fuck it man, America let me know White skin and MBA and all that I wasn’t welcome. Panama let me know I very much was welcome.

  4. Hello, Dashiell.
    As I remember it, from the anthrolpology textbooks, there are three identifiable strains of homo sapiens; the negroid, the caucasoid, and the mongoloid. Inasmuch as anthropoloy is to be considered as science, these differences are scientific facts.

    It is also known that less than 1% of behaviors have a genetic basis. Some do, but not many. Culture is a greater contributing factor, or for purposes of this discussion, sub-culture.

    No, it’s no use to deny that race exists, though I have seen urban areas where the vast majority of people on the streets are various shades of brown.

    But I think Kelso hit the nail on the head with this:
    It’s always about this weird way of discussing or not discusing race in the US because boy you sure can’t discuss “class.”

    Racism is a divisive tactic used against the lower classes to prevent discussion of class inequity. It’s a way to make people feel secure while they’re being exploited. When the talk of race subsides, people start looking at each other and realize how much they have in common. They realize that they share common interests.

  5. Thanks to all for your good comments.
    One point I want to make to Progressive Traditionalist. You say that inasmuch as anthropology as science, race is a scientific truth.
    I recall being taught that there were four races, not three, with the Australian/Oceanic aboriginal being the fourth.
    The point is that categorizations have differed even within anthropology.
    What I am arguing is that even if anthropology uses these categories to distinguish different types, there are no biological entities corresponding to them. People may choose to put labels on certain areas within a continuum, but that’s different than positing a discrete biological race. I consider it a practically useless concept at this point. The classification of someone as belonging to a certain race, or combination of races, adds nothing to my understanding of their history, culture, thinking, religion, etc. And the physical characteristics that it purports to describe are completely fluid and variable. I maintain that race as an idea was created in the context of unequal social conditions, and that science simply limped along after this idea because it was already there in the culture, not because it came to the idea empirically.

  6. Damn Dash I thought you were black…but Shakespeare impressed me with Othello it opened my eyes to possibilities within this fucked system we have been born into.
    Race is a thorn we have has to bear for a long time.
    I love reading old textbooks and newspaper clippings.
    The general mentality was psychotic.
    The thing is, there are remnants of that school of thought. healthy remnants that should be supressed.
    My mother shares all the civil rights stories with me.
    She also told all about reconstrution and how the black was abandoned by the Federal government and it was open season on a black man.
    We have not been voting all that long.
    What is refreshing is a frank and honest discourse on the insanity of it all.

  7. Dash,
    Some articles from Discover that discuss race, biology, genetics, etc.

    Is There a Genetic Basis to Race After All?” May 2007
    Race Without Color” November 1994.
    Terms of Estrangement” November 1994.

  8. (OFF TOPIC) I’m sorry to cut into your post with an off topic comment, but this is a message for fairlane:

    I left you a gift at my blog. Enjoy.

  9. Dash: I hit you and the PROGTRAD with a Blogovia game.

  10. Dash, I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond sooner to your post because out here on Long Island, race is an issue every day. No, it really doesn’t get discussed amongst the citizenry because of the way towns and villages here have been Balkanized. Some towns are populated mainly by Whites (and therefore considered safe) and some are populated by Blacks and Hispanics (and unsafe). This is the reality.

    But it goes much deeper than that and I think you touched upon this point early on in your post. Ignorance kills. You mentioned that white Europeans, upon first viewing the darker complexions of African men, freaked out at the sight and eventually used that difference in skin color to justify all manner of barbarism. It’s really not much different today. The difference is that given all the science about race and the evidence that ethnic groups are being divided to perpetuate this false idea of class, people are still choosing to remain ignorant. They are choosing racism.

    But some are not. I am banking on this hope that people will simply let the race issue go and treat people as people. A while ago, I read a book called The Journey of Man by Spencer Wells. It was also a PBS documentary, too. No matter. What this man did was, in my mind, nothing short of spectacular. Through the study of genetics, Wells was able to trace how modern humans migrated from the savannas of Africa to spread to all parts of the world by studying the shared genetic code. It another words, every human’s ancestry is African. Race, if there is such a thing, appears to be an evolutionary trait and not a genetic one.

    I agree. Race is nonsense.

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