Race, One More Time

What is racism if not the idea that race matters?

But just try to suggest that race doesn’t matter in polite company, and see how far that gets you. At a lovely dinner party on Saturday night I had a spirited discussion on precisely this topic with the woman who was sitting to my right, with whom I have been friendly for a long time. We are still on good terms; now she just thinks I’m nuts.

Her first response was that she has often been told by her black acquaintances that the people who claim to be colorblind are generally the ones who are the most bigoted. She didn’t mean to imply that I am a bigot, you understand, just to hint that I was on thin ice.

I hadn’t claimed that I didn’t see color, though; of course I do. I see lots of things, some of them involuntary characteristics like color, approximate age, height and sex, some resulting from embedded habits like posture and weight and some consciously chosen like attire, facial tattoos and piercings. And I see behavior. We all take in these things.

How can an involuntary characteristic tell us anything about the character or capabilities of an individual who possesses it? How can it tell us about what he values or what he hates? It can’t.

We make snap judgments about people all the time. How can I expect this particular stranger to behave? Do I fear that he will attack me? Do I sense that he and I share the same values? Our every instinct tells us to judge whether a stranger is friend or foe – somebody to be trusted or somebody to be watched. Such instincts exist for very good reasons – some people do not wish us well.

But to make such judgments on the basis of involuntary characteristics is on its face (if you will) irrational. Absent a race war, I would have to be a moron to make such judgments based on skin color – there are nearly infinite numbers of white people whom I would instinctively avoid, and as many black people whom I would instinctively trust. What matters to me – at a glance – is simply my sense of whether somebody means me good or ill.

Why do so many people believe that nearly everybody else (except themselves, natch) makes his decisions – including often the most serious, consequential ones, like admissions or employment – based on skin color? Isn’t it more sensible to think that, except when forced to do otherwise by law or an institution, most of us make both snap and considered decisions based on complex multi-factor assessments of others’ cultures, capabilities and behavior? We are not evil – or stupid.

***

Ah, you might ask, but what about institutional racism and America’s collective, historical guilt?

As to institutional racism, it certainly has existed and, in a sense, still exists. Slavery was legal in this country until the Emancipation Proclamation; in many places, Jim Crow laws kept black people down for another hundred years. Those laws – and the bigotry behind them – were terrible violations of this nation’s ideals.

Even so, I am not a believer in collective guilt, much less historical guilt for the sins of our fathers. We are individuals, and each of us may or may not be born with original sin, but we are not born with our father’s – or our great grandfather’s – sins. Every child is born with exactly the same level of innocence as every other child, along with nearly infinite potential – pigmentation levels don’t change any of that.

(And, FWIW, my own forbears came here as impoverished immigrants long after slavery had been ended, and never resided anywhere where Jim Crow laws prevailed, so even if I believed in collective or inherited guilt, I wouldn’t be feeling it).

Few of us will achieve even a fraction of what our innate capabilities might theoretically enable us to do; we are too busy to focus our minds sharply enough on specific tasks to do them brilliantly. We muddle through life instead. If we are lucky, we focus enough energy on a particular set of skills to distinguish ourselves, and we do not make the mistake of trusting people who mean us ill.

***

My own view is that racism is a cultural – and sometimes personal – disease that relies on the irrational calculation that pigmentation determines character, culture or capability – and that the disease of racism is perpetuated by the very affirmative-action laws, de facto admissions quotas and “diversity” – driven employment practices that elevate and enshrine those involuntary human characteristics. Once we are divided into groups based on such characteristics, members of each group will naturally look after those who are in the same boat, and view those who are not as competitors at best or enemies at worst. This is a prescription for never-ending strife. Today’s institutional racism, theoretically put in place to answer for yesterday’s, gives new life to the same old sickness.

I believe that all men are created equal in the eyes of God, and that we should be, but are not currently, dealt with without reference to involuntary, in-born characteristics by our laws and our institutions. Discrimination on the basis of such characteristics is counter-productive, definitionally divisive and morally wrong – it’s the very essence of racism.

I don’t care about race; I care about culture and character first, because they determine how an individual will treat me, then about capability, because it determines what I can reasonably expect that individual to achieve.

I’m just not sure you should say that at a dinner party.

 

M.H. Johnston

5 comments to Race, One More Time

  • Doug  says:

    “Mark! Why did you incite such an uncomfortable interchange? This was a dinner party. I can’t take you anywhere.”

  • Tim Huban  says:

    Great discussion Mark….not an easy topic to discuss, let alone a dinner party. Seems like mostly any discussions these days are slanted by one’s political persuasion. Many a friendship are strained these days by discussions that are not sports related….and even sports discussions have become more difficult!

    • Doug  says:

      Tim, Yankees – Sox? Brady’s deflated balls? Sports is off the (dinner) table. Ornithology and gardening seems to work.

  • John Primm  says:

    I have to agree with Doug–stick to birds and bees…um…keep slinging them Mark, you are one of the good ones, even if you aren’t invited back.

  • David  says:

    Good manners dictate no response to a faux pas, or deflection not derogation. That is the province of antifa – the antithesis of manners.

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