what have you done with your brother?

IMG_20160121_082109

 

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction.

– AC Grayling

The last word on Racism by AC Grayling
Racism is on its deathbed – the question is, how costly will racists make the funeral? – Martin Luther King

Just as a jury in upstate New York acquits four police officers of wrongdoing in the Harlem shooting of Amadou Diallo – they said they thought his wallet was a gun, and fired 41 bullets at him – so a human rights commission in South Africa begins to investigate systematic racism in the country’s media.

Here, meanwhile, the fall-out from the Lawrence tragedy continues, and tensions simmer between British Muslim youth and the surrounding majority society. Everywhere one looks, race and racism make angry welts on the body politic, and deep wounds.

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction. It has no genetic or biological basis. All human beings are closely related to one another, and at the same time each human being is unique. Not only is the concept of race entirely artificial, it is new; yet in its short existence it has, like most lies and absurdities current among us, done a mountain of harm.

The first classification of humans into races was mooted by Linnaeus, who recognised it as a mere convenience with no basis in nature. He employed the same criteria as in his botanical classifications, namely, outward appearance, giving rise later to the simplistic typing of all humans into “Caucasoid”, “Negroid” and “Mongoloid”. But advances in genetics have demolished such taxonomies, by taking DNA as the criterion of classification. Linnaeus’s system says that one of Buddhism’s holy plants, the lotus, is related to the water lily; DNA comparison says it is related to London’s familiar and beloved plane tree.

It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a complete fiction.

 

In human terms, DNA analysis dismantles the idea of race completely. “Race has no basic biological reality,” says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University, “the human species simply doesn’t come packaged that way.” Rather, race is a social, cultural and political concept based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other peoples as Europe developed a global reach, with the slavery and colonialism that followed.

It was not only Linnaeus who knew that “race” is a fiction. In the mid-19th century EA Freeman famously discredited the whole of idea of “community of blood”, as did Ashley Montagu in the mid-20th century. Even Hitler knew it, despite making the concept central: ” I know perfectly well… that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race… but I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis… And for this purpose the conception of races serves me well…”

All human beings have the same ancestors. Human history is a short one; it is less than a quarter of a million years long, with the first migrations from Africa beginning half that time ago. The physical diversity of human populations today is purely a function of geographical accidents of climate and the isolation of wandering bands.

The distinctions which have since been drawn between peoples are, accord ingly, arbitrary and superficial, even those relating to skin colour – for, as a moment’s attention shows, there is simply no such thing as “white”, “black” or “yellow” people; there are people with many shades and types of skin, making no difference to any other aspect of their humanity save what the malice of others can construct.

To advance beyond racism one has to advance beyond race. But that goal is not helped by what Sartre called “anti-racist racism”, as with the Black Power movement and its cognates. It is understandable that communities which suffer prejudice and abuse should shelter behind a protective identity; but identities grow rigid and become a source of new pieties, new excuses to repay evil with evil; and they indirectly entrench the very idea that lies at the root of the problem.

Racism will end when individuals see others only in individual terms. “There are no ‘white’ or ‘coloured’ signs on the graveyards of battle,” said John F. Kennedy; and there is a significant moral in that remark.

I concur with Grayling’s view and yet would want to add an emphasis – that while race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s