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Unmaking Race, Finale: Why We Should Discard Race
Race is filthy beyond redemption
Centuries ago, a terrible idea was born. It was an idea that ravaged the world, that fed the flames of war and genocide, and legitimated slavery, torture, and brutal oppression.
This terrible idea was the idea of race.
The blood-drenched history of race is plain for anyone to see. Race was invented as an ideological weapon, honed to advantage one group of people by oppressing others. It has birthed genocide and chattel slavery, underpinned lynching, and has excused exploitation and grinding poverty, and vast disparities in wealth, health, mortality, and incarceration. Millions died in the European colonization of Africa (as many as ten million in the Congo alone), and there were the nearly unimaginable horrors of the transatlantic slave trade (more than twelve million transported in chains to the Americas, with two million dying during the middle passage), not to mention the Namibian genocide (seventy-five thousand dead), the Holocaust (six million dead), and the Rwanda genocide (one million dead). More than four thousand African Americans were lynched—often tortured, castrated, and burned to death before crowds of hundreds or thousands of eager spectators. The list could go on and on.
What reasonable person can dispute that, weighed on a moral balance, race has done vastly more harm than good?
The hideous consequences of race are a feature, not a glitch. From the beginning, the function of race was to do harm. And yet, race continues to permeate our lives and thinking. Hanging on to race might be warranted if race were something real. But the verdict from science is that race is a fiction with no biological basis. Racial taxonomies are not inscribed in our genes and our bodies. They’re social inventions.
Most Americans (and very many others) believe that race is something that is separable from racism, and that we can and should embrace the former without endorsing the latter. But the sordid history of race shows that racism is woven into the very fabric of race. The historical record is clear: racism birthed race, not the other way around. People didn’t observe that there are other races in the world, and afterwards develop racist attitudes toward them. Rather, the idea of race was invented, proliferated, and persisted as a tool for legitimating oppression.
The invention of race has been successful beyond its originators’ wildest ambitions. It has reached far beyond the European colonization of distant lands, and now, centuries later, continues to colonize our minds. This psychological colonization has been so thorough that it is difficult to see, much less resist or rebel against. And today in the United States we have a campaign waged by the far right (and not-so-far right) to erase this hideous history, to teach our children that enslaved people benefitted from their enslavement and abuse, and a Supreme Court intent on turning back the clock by denying the inherited disadvantages that arise from our long history of racial oppression.
James Baldwin once wrote, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself and half-believed, before I was able to walk on this earth as though I had a right to be here.” Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of the history of race will know about the filth that Baldwin spoke of.
Let’s take Baldwin’s metaphor a little further. When something is filthy, you either clean it up or throw it out. You clean it up if it is something of value to you, and it is not irreparable. So, why not treat race that way? After all, many regard racial identity as something of value that deserves to be preserved rather than discarded. And many many believe (in fact, it counts as “common knowledge”) that race can be cleansed of its accretions of evil.
Some race theorists promote exactly that approach. The philosopher Michael Hardimon is a prominent and sophisticated example. He argues that although we have inherited a “pernicious, traditional, essentialist concept of race” from colonialism and slavery, we can replace it with a different conception of race. We can choose to see races simply as groups of people distinguished by patterns of visible physical features and linked by a common ancestry from a distinctive geographical region, with no hierarchical element.
While this program is possible in principle, it is unrealistic in practice. Racial classification has never been an innocent exercise in taxonomy. Of course, it’s possible to imagine a world in which describing someone as Black or White would be as innocuous as describing them as tall or short. But that’s not the world that we live in. The ideas of race that we have inherited have the weight and inertia of history behind them and this cannot be banished by fiat. Deeply stamped into the foundations of our civilization, stereotypes that first emerged centuries ago are still very much with us. As Marx hauntingly wrote, “the traditions of past generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” We are burdened and bound by our history— a history that lives on in the words and ideas that are sedimented into the world outside the tiny, rarified spaces of academic journals and seminar rooms.
There is another reason—a much more profound reason—why we should give race up rather than trying to preserve it. Imagine that present-day Germans decided that they wanted to preserve the swastika as an emblem of national pride, cleansed of its specifically Nazi connotations. The new, reformed swastikas would be emblazoned on public buildings and governmental letterheads. And suppose that Jewish people, too, adopted the swastika, and took to wearing swastika armbands.
What would you think?
This thought experiment is not far from a real-life example that has been unfolding for some time now in the United States. Defenders of the Confederate battle flag propose that it stands for traditional Southern culture rather than slavery, and should be preserved and celebrated as such. Likewise, statues honoring Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes.
I hope that this argument by Confederate apologists does not impress you. It certainly doesn’t impress me. Now consider the fact that the crimes committed in the name of race include the holocaust and the horrors of American slavery, as well as much, much more. How can anyone acquainted with the facts honestly justify retaining the former while rejecting the latter?
I don’t think that one can. Race is filthy beyond redemption. That’s why it must be discarded.