; charset=UTF-8" The fallacy of race

A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

Psalm 119:7 I will praise thee with an upright heart, when I learn thy righteous ordinances.

A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

The fallacy of race

31 May 2008 · No Comments

This afternoon I heard a commentator on NPR say something like this: “Barack Obama will probably be the Democratic nominee for president. Then Americans will all have to face how they really feel about race.” The speaker assumed, apparently, that the only reason anyone would oppose Sen. Obama is because he is “a black man” (whatever that means). Opposition for this reason is racism; therefore anyone who opposes Sen. Obama is a racist. To put it in the form of a syllogism, if Jones is a person opposed to electing Barack Obama as president:

Barack Obama is a black man.
Jones does not want Barack Obama to be president.
Therefore Jones does not want a black man to be president.

Because anyone who would exclude a person from holding public office because of his race is a racist, Jones is a racist. There is a serious logical flaw here, which, if you don’t see what it is, I’ll gladly explain. (It depends, as Bill Clinton would say, on what “is” means.) I assume, however, that my readers are intelligent enough to see the fallacy.

The commentator went on to introduce some guests (since this was on the radio, I would not have known the racial affiliation of one of them unless she had mentioned it, and the other never identified herself with a race), both of them journalists, one of whom has been running a blog concerning “honest questions about race.” The upshot of the conversation being that racism is alive and well, and if anyone (at least any “white” person–I’m not sure if the distinction was made) denies being a racist, he is not being honest.

I suppose that these two apparently intelligent women will call me either dishonest or a racist or both. I do not want Sen. Obama to be president; indeed I believe it would be a disaster for the country and a serious threat to the liberties of many Americans, including myself. I do not believe this because of his appearance or where his ancestors came from. I am also, as a trained historian and an amateur admirer of science, aware that the concept of “race” has no scientific basis, but is a social construct. It has been a particularly destructive social construct in the history of the United States, to be sure, but racial identity is something assumed by the subject and ascribed by those around him. There is only one race, the human race, and that, while it contains a great deal of morphological variation, is not divided into subspecies, let alone separate species. A male human being of any phenotype can produce fertile offspring with a female human being of any other phenotype, as Senator Obama demonstrates in his own person.

Still, we do have this peculiar division in America, reinforced by the forms, from the Census on down, that we are constantly having to fill out. It is all mixed up with the legacy of the slave system, and unscientific, or rather pseudoscientific, principles of discrimination, and a good deal of hatred resulting from these things. One of these pseudoscientific principles is that a person who has some ancestors who came from Africa (usually as slaves) is considered “black” regardless of how many ancestors he has coming from anywhere else, especially if he has any superficial anatomical similarities to any of the indigenous inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. This principle can lead to some remarkable absurdities. A friend of mine (of Irish descent) who used to teach at a “historically black” college once remarked to me that he had had “black” students who were fairer than he was. Their identification is entirely tied to culture. Senator Obama illustrates this absurdity himself. He has identified himself with a culture with which he has only the most tenuous of connections: His father was an African who came to this country voluntarily, who had no ancestors who were slaves in the New World, and who, moreover, had little connection with his upbringing, while his mother’s ancestors, at least as far back as anyone can reckon, had no connection with Africa at all. He is, perhaps, more legitimately “African-American” than most who call themselves that, but his ancestry and early experience were entirely different from theirs.

Indeed, calling Senator Obama a “black man”–in the sense in which this term is generally used–is more an ideological than a scientific, or even a cultural, statement. For ideological reasons he has chosen to associate himself with a particular group, and those ideological reasons–not the group he is associated with–may legitimately determine whether or not it would be good for the country to have him as president. One of the elements of this ideology is the existence and importance of this fiction called race: his church, for example, bases its teachings on “black liberation theology,” rather than, say, the universal love of God as manifested in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also the ideology that claims that all “white” people are racists, and liars if they say they aren’t.

If I were going to offer reasons to prove I am not a racist, I might start with the observation that if “racism” means anything useful, it would refer to a set of beliefs which I do not hold. However, I won’t do that, because anything I said would be dismissed as dishonesty. Generally–returning to the radio program–the indication of racism on the part of those who deny they have it is a certain unease or fear in the presence of “black” people. I tend to be uneasy in the presence of all kinds of people, especially if they are men larger or more muscular than I (the latter is not difficult) and they are expressing, by their dress, attitude, or expression, a certain hostility toward others. I used to work out at a gym where I found myself shrinking in fear from almost everyone, regardless of ethnic affiliation.

Last weekend I went to a Rite-Aid drug store. As I began to approach the counter, I saw behind it a man of African-American features in a white shirt and tie, who, from his age and dress, and from the way he addressed other members of the staff, I deduced was the manager. Before I could reach the counter, however, two men entered the store. They had fair skin; one had short red hair, getting a bit scant on top. Both were dressed in t-shirts and jeans, had muscular arms, and bore themselves in a way that suggested they did not care for people getting in their way. The stood between me and the counter, and began to chat with the manager. I kept my distance, although they did not appear to be doing any business, while I had purchases to check out. The conversation suggested that the red-haired man and the manager were acquaintances and that both had children who were seniors in high school and attending prom that weekend. This served to allay the momentary fear that I had felt. Of whom was I afraid? Not the “black” man but the “white” one. If the men had been of similar dress and demeanor, but the manager had been white and his buddy black, my reaction would no doubt have been called, by the ladies on the radio, racist. So what does that make me, besides a coward?

Tags: Politics and society

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