Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope

The most powerful ideas are those we don’t question. 

We maybe aren’t aware enough to think about them or we don’t know how to formulate possible doubts and criticisms. There might be something actively obstructing our ability to perceive clearly or else a cognitive stumbling block. Biases and blind spots abound.

The most important and fundamental ideas are the very ideas we are least likely to see for what they are. This is all the more true on the collective level of society and culture. An idea as a social construct becomes a part of our perception of the world and part of our shared sense of reality. This is how the most nefarious of ideological systems become reality tunnels.

Thus is the idea of race. Thus is the racism and racial bias that inevitably follows from it.

In speaking of race, to what is being referred? We don’t normally think about the idea of race itself. We just see race. It is like that famous definition of porn: You know it when you see it. The corollary being: You see it because you know it.

Now we live in a supposed post-racial society of color-blindness. The ultimate taboo is to point out the continued existence of racial bias and prejudice and the pervasiveness of structural racism, systemic and institutional. The greatest rule of political correctness is to never point to any person or organization, any system or belief as racist, to never call a spade a spade. We all are supposed to go on pretending for many fear what would happen if we were to stop. The hope is that if racial issues are ignored long enough that they will go away, but sadly this hope has proven false.

Race as a social construct has existed for so long at this point that it is hard for us to imagine a world before it or a world without it. However, it didn’t always exist. When Europeans explored and colonized, they met with all kinds of people from all over the world. They knew people were different in many ways, but the modern idea of race was yet to be formulated. What they saw were differences between cultures which were represented mostly by differences of religion and, within cultures, differences of social class or caste.

“To be sure, past peoples were ethnocentric. They frequently believed themselves culturally superior to others and sometimes exhibited the nasty habit of painting others as uncultured and brutish or savage, even to the point of justifying enslavement and killing on this basis. Yet, as any introductory cultural anthropology text will illustrate, ethnocentric and later racial logics differed significantly. These differences are most obvious with respect to characterization of human potential and the perceived connection, or lack thereof, of cultural and physical traits. Prior to the inception of race, people were much less likely to link cultural practices instinctively and irrevocably to physical differences, which were often attributed to distinct environmental conditions (Brace 2005). Nor were people necessarily inclined to believe that phenotypic diversity across groups represented inherent or essential – i.e., unbridgeable – differences in ability or character. Indeed, before race, people more readily saw through phenotypes to find deeper, behavioral similarities if not common ground. Moreover, where they deemed others to be culturally backwards in language, religion, food, adornment, or other behaviors, they tended to view these deficits as correctable. With time, learned behavioral deficiencies could be overwritten through “proper” enculturation, while inherent racial inferiority, by definition, could not.

“Again, cultural biases are far from benign and it is not our intent to rank stratification systems according to their perniciousness. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between ethnocentrism and racism because of the increasing conflation of culture and race (Harrison, chapter 17 this volume). The point here is to show the critical shift that race represents in the nature of human relations; an unfortunate shift in primary focus from learned practices and traditions toward static or fixed notions of physical and essential characteristics. In general, pre-racial conceptions of diversity did not inhibit one from recognizing and acknowledging the shared human capacity to learn and participate fully in any culture or society – irrespective of phenotypic characteristics later used to distinguish races.

“Classicist Frank Snowden (1983) clearly illustrates this fact in Before Color Prejudice, his seminal study of “the black image” in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and early Christian art and literature. Warning against the temptation to read contemporary social issues into the historical record, Snowden observes that interactions in the ancient Mediterranean between peoples today classified as black or white – even among political and military rivals – were devoid of “acute” color consciousness and any type of racial discrimination . He points out that these societies never observed blackness as the basis of slave status.”

(Race: Are We So Different by Goodman, Moses and Jones; Kindle Locations 893-914)

The ruling elite had found such non-racial divisions to be useful enough for maintaining their power and the social order. Race hadn’t been invented for it wasn’t needed. 

There was no social context in which to see the diversity of physical features as significant and meaningful. People at that time had little understanding of biology and no understanding of genetics. Many speculated that physical features were caused by environment such that skin was dark from spending a lot of time under a hot sun. Others sought religious explanations. 

The reason race didn’t occur to them at this time was because Europeans had no concept of being the same people. An English person had no reason to feel any more identified with an Italian or Russian than with an African or Native American. As far as that goes, the English didn’t even see themselves as having much in common with the Irish, the first savages in the English worldview.

The first use of the word ‘race’ appeared in the 15th century. At that time, it meant one’s lineage, family and kin. The Enlightenment brought a more universalizing interpretation to race where everyone who even vaguely resembled you or shared your geographic region was considered as part of some larger sense of lineage, family and kin.

When the modern idea of race was invented, it would have initially seemed truly bizarre and there was much ethnocentric resistance to it. It was only the growing demands of colonization that made the idea of race seem attractive and worthy. People were trying to make sense of a newly discovered complex world, a world in which the old social order was being challenged. Racial divisions were initially a practical matter of political power, not a scientific discovery. Once implemented, though, they began to take on a life of their own.

Before slavery, there were indentured servants in Virginia of a great variety of ethnicities and skin colors. These unfree people worked together, lived together, slept together and rebelled together.

“The first Africans who arrived in Virginia colony in 1619 were not initially considered slaves . They had Spanish or Portuguese names and were familiar with European culture. Like other poor laborers, they were treated as indentured servants who could also achieve their freedom after paying their debts. Some of these Africans worked hard and acquired land, houses, livestock, and tools on their own. Historians now agree that true slavery did not exist in the early decades of the English North American colonies (see Allen 1997; Fredrickson 2002; E. Morgan 1975; P. Morgan 1998; Parent, Jr. 2003). Moreover , there is little or no evidence that Africans were treated differently from other people of the same class. They were assimilated into colonial society as were others. When they acquired land, they participated in the assembly, the governing body of the colony , voted , served on juries, and socialized with white planters.

“Historian Edmund Morgan writes,

“There is more than a little evidence that Virginians during these years were ready to think of Negroes as members or potential members of the community on the same terms as other men and to demand of them the same standards of behavior. Black men and white serving the same master worked, ate, and slept together, and together shared in escapades, escapes, and punishments. (1975: 327)

“He adds, “It was common for servants and slaves to run away together , steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together” (327). Indeed, there was no stigma associated with what we today call “interracial” marriages.

“Until the early 18th century, the image of Africans among most Europeans was generally positive . They were farmers and cattle-breeders; they had industries, arts and crafts, governments, and commerce. Moreover, they had immunities to Old World diseases, they were better laborers under the tropical conditions of the southern settlements; and they had nowhere to run and hide once transplanted to the New World (E. Morgan 1975; Smedley 2007).

“There were critical reasons for the preference for Africans. As early as the 1630s, planters expressed a desire for African laborers (“ If only we had some Africans!” they wrote ). Records of plantation owners in the Caribbean and in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland reveal that Africans were initially considered a civilized and docile people who had knowledge of, and experience with, tropical cultivation. They were accustomed to discipline, one of the hallmarks of civilized behavior, as well as working cooperatively in groups. They knew how to grow corn, tobacco, sugar cane, and cotton in their native lands ; these crops were unknown in Europe. And many Africans had knowledge of metalwork, carpentry, cattle-keeping, brick-making, weaving, rope making, leather tanning, and many other skills. Colonists soon realized that without Africans, their enterprises would fail. “We cannot survive without Africans!” they claimed.”

(Kindle Locations 1239-1263)

The aristocracy in the New World were isolated and their power was precarious. For reasons unknown, it occurred to someone that the notion of race could be imposed in order to divide the oppressed against one another. It was a brilliant innovation. Seemingly out of the blue, someone imagined the possibility of a new social order. Of course, there was great incentive to consider new possibilities with the restlessness of the oppressed such as Bacon’s Rebellion.

This was the Age of Enlightenment. The ancien régime was eroding. Reactionary conservatism was being born. The new ideas that arose then have been the basis of our society ever since. Some of those ideas like race have turned out to be quite adaptable. Who is and isn’t white or caucasian has changed massively over time, but the idea is so compelling that it is ever taken as if it were an unchanging reality.

What gives a social order its potency is the cultural understandings and assumptions it is built upon. Black and white have nothing to do with objective reality. So-called whites aren’t white. They are pink or beige or olive or even the lighter shades of brown.  And so-called blacks aren’t black. If you were to walk from Germany to South Africa, you’d never come across any color division at any point, rather a slow gradation and continuum from lighter to darker. Even within Africa, there is greater genetic diversity than there is between Africans and non-Africans.

“What they found is that the average difference between any two Europeans and any two Asians was slightly greater than 0.6/ 1000 or about 15 in total. This is not so surprisingly low as it has been crudely estimated that about 99.9 percent of single nucleotide polymorphisms are identical between any two individuals. They then found very little difference between an Asian and a European. Thinking about that, this makes sense as the dividing line between these continents is permeable and rather arbitrary. More variation was found between an African, on the one hand, and either a European or Asian on the other hand, right about one variation per thousand. The shocker comes next. However, the greatest variation was found between two Africans, about 1.2 variations per thousand. Said slightly differently, there is more variation among Africans than between Africans and non-Africans.”

(Kindle Locations 4781-4787)

To translate: Many Africans are more genetically in common with non-Africans, including Europeans, than they are with many other Africans (from other regions in Africa or from other populations in the same region). It would make more genetic sense to group all non-Africans together as a single race than to group all Africans together as a single race.

With race, there is no there there. Or what is there isn’t what we think is there.

Black and white is a symbolic order, more akin to religion than science. The duality of black and white is a symbol of stories, of myths, of archetypes. In the old cowboy movies, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black hats. In Taoism, Yang is white and Yin is black. These color symbols touch deeply upon our collective psyche. The same goes for yellow and red as racial symbols. In using such archetypal symbolism, we are dealing with the most primitive regions of the human mind and of human society that forms from it.

It is precisely because there is no objective reality they are limited to that such symbolic orders can be so powerful in their impact on social reality. This is also what makes them so flexible and mercurial, so hard to grasp and pin down. Even to try to objectively challenge them is near impossible for that isn’t the level where resides their force of authority. Only the imagining of a new symolic order even more compelling can challenge the old.

Thinking in black and white unsurprisingly is caused by and in turn reinforces black and white thinking.

Polarized dualities have obsessed the Western mind at least since the rise of the Judeo-Christian tradition with its having been heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism. Black and white symbolism is rooted in the ancient view of Good versus Evil, of cosmic battles, of God’s chosen people righteously saving souls or else destroying the unredeemable. It wasn’t because Africans were black that they were enslaved. Rather it was because they weren’t Protestants, weren’t Christians, because they were perceived as Heathens, whether as innocents to be saved or sinners to be damned. This is why race is always mired in harsh moral judgments of superiority and inferiority instead of mere neutral observations of diversity. Our society is still dominated by a Judeo-Christian moral order.

Still, times have changed. We no longer live in a worldview of the civilized versus savages and barbarians. The racial worldview replaced and co-opted that more ancient worldview so that certain races became seen as more civilized and so more worthy in civilized society. Eventually, the curse and blessings of genetics took the place of the curse and blessings of God. Such fatalism in whatever form it takes leads to visions of manifest destiny and white man’s burden, social Darwinism just being the same old belief in new form and with new rationalization.

The development of science has been a constant challenge to these dogmatic beliefs and dualistic moralizings. Still, humans are quite talented at putting old wine into new wine skins. The language of science easily gets misleadingly used as a more subtle and nuanced defense of pre-scientific and non-scientific beliefs. This isn’t necessarily a devious plan by all involved. It is simply difficult for humans to grasp the fundamentally new and different.

Even within science, old paradigms die hard and die slowly. The dualism of nurture versus nature is such a paradigm. It has been replaced by interactionism, but many people are still trying to understand this new paradigm according to the terms of the old paradigm. The implications of interactionism are more profound and paradigm shattering than many would like to admit. It is forcing us to begin anew which means cleaning the slate of tired notions and false assumptions. The potential and plasticity of human development is proving to be more vast than even the most optimistic were able to envision in the past. Genetic determinism, specifically of races, is no longer defensible.

However, as I already explained, this ultimately isn’t an issue that pivots on careful rational analysis. Rather it is about what we collectively are able and willing to imagine. How far will we allow ourselves to follow the data toward new visions of humanity?

To understand what holds us back as a society, it is necessary to grasp the primitive level of the psyche.

Race is an idea that originated from reactionary conservatism. What makes reactionary conservatism unique is that it is how the impulse of traditionalism is transformed in response to modernity. As such, it is reformulated in terms of Enlightenment rationalism. However, the impulse itself precedes and trumps any rationalization that follows from it.

The main difference for the conservative-minded, as research has shown, is the disgust response. Even something so simple as foreign or unusual food will create a disgust response for those of a strong disgust orientation. It is an instinctual reaction, not usually even conscious. There is just a knowing sense that it is wrong. Rationalizations can and often are given, but the essence of the matter is the gut-level feeling of ‘wrongness’.

This goes along with the black and white thinking. What black and white symbolizes more than anything else is that of a boundary, an absolute and clearly demarcated boundary. Conservatism correlates to the thick boundary type. This is something I previously noted in terms of human biodiversity advocates (HBDers) and their obsession with boundaries:

What I sense with the HBD crowd is that it attracts a lot more thick boundary types or at least those with thick boundary online personas. Either way, this means that it attracts people who want to focus on topics that focus on thick boundaries and in ways that are thick boundaried. I don’t mean extreme thick boundaries, but a tendency in that direction. The emphasis of HBD is on the boundaries between ethnicities, clans, regions, nations, etc. They have less interest in that which transcends, merges and blurs boundaries.

To my thin boundary mind, boundaries are imagined things. They are only real to the extent we imagine them to be real. The thin boundary type sees a less thick or clear boundary between even imagination and reality. It is because of this mentality that I look for how people, individually and collectively, project their imaginations onto reality.

What boundaries imply is separation. The enforcement of boundaries is to prevent their crossing.

The fear behind the racial boundary is what would happen if the races aren’t kept separate. In the pre-racial mindset, there were fears of civilized man mixing with the primitive. It was feared that bad things would happen or be produced. It was believed that this is how monsters were born. With the emergence of the racial mindset, miscegenation laws were created. The fear then was that the offspring would be deformed, stupid or dangerous. In both cases, the fear was that the boundary was natural and crossing it was unnatural.

HBDers have originated yet another version of this fear. They don’t speak of monsters or miscegenation. Instead, they advocate racial and ethnic purity, although they won’t use those terms.

Outbreeding within a population is seen as good in that it leads to civilizing effects, but interbreeding with entirely separate populations is seen as bad. HBDers can’t scientifically explain why it would be bad, but they just know it would be bad. It’s not that races have always existed and must be protected. What is desired is the eventual creation of races. Many HBDers speak of dog breeds when speaking of races. Maybe they are telling more of their true intentions than they would want to admit to. Dog breeds don’t happen naturally. They are forced into creation through socially enforced breeding that is manipulated by a ruling elite, i.e., the breeders. HBDers and similar racial visionaries want to breed races, to finally make real what was before only an idea.

Race isn’t a reality, at least not a physical reality. It is an ongoing project. A new social order was imagined. It has taken centuries to enforce it, but it has never been fully successful. Humans have gone on interbreeding as they did for millennia prior to the idea of races.

Modern civilization didn’t happen by accident. It had to be created by massive effort over the entire history of humanity. In oral-based indigenous societies, social order tends to be more fluid and changing. Stories change with each telling. Laws and rituals change with the passing of generations.

What has been sought with modernity is a final solution, a permanent order. Race is such an aspiration. We want to enforce order not just on society but on the very basis of human nature at the most fundamental level of biology and genetics. The creation of the idea of the white race was built on the hope of creating a new race of mankind that would dominate the world.

This hope may seem naive now. It has been dashed upon the rocks of globalization, the inevitable end result of European exploration and colonization. The advocates of race find themselves instead in a defensive position. They want to save what they can of this centuries-old project. They’ve limited the scope of the project for it turned out to be too ambitious, but the project must not be abandoned for some see it as the basis of all of Western Civilization. If there is no singular white race, then there can be no singular Western Civilization. Like race, civilizations aren’t natural realities that have always existed. They must be created and protected.

This is the power of imagination. We imagine vast social visions. Then those imaginings become our entire sense of reality. Anything that challenges them will threaten our very sense of identity. As a society, we’ve committed so much into this racial project that to fail now seems like the greatest of tragedies.

Others, however, envision new and better projects toward a new and better future. It’s not so much a matter of what humanity is for we have yet to discover our true limits. What we face is the unknown of what we might become if were to live out our full potential. That is a scary prospect. The known limits of race are more comforting than the unknowns transcending our fearful beliefs. The future is what we make of it. Human nature is the terra incognito on the map of new worlds.

The era of race is coming to an end. It might take many more generations to fully end, but it will end as previous eras ended. What will the new era bring? What new visions are emerging?

Let me add a simple note of explanation. I always worry about failing to communicate well and so being misunderstood.

When I spoke of a project, I don’t mean that it is necessarily a conscious project. It is more of a guiding function within a particular reality tunnel. The person who is under the influence of such a project does so in a less than direct fashion.

So, I wasn’t accusing HBDers of something as grandiose as breeding races as an eugenics agenda. It is simply that people act according to the reality they perceive and in doing so help to create that reality or try their best to do so. All reality tunnels are self-fulfilling prophecies, at least when successful.

In speaking of such things, I’m try to grasp elusive social realities. You’ll have to forgive my stumbling attempts to put words to it all.

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