Posted by: JDM..... | July 18, 2013

RACE…

the irrelevant factor we won’t let go of.….

Let’s talk about the subject of “race” for a few minutes.

Never mind. That will never work. How about “Let’s talk about the subject of ‘race’ for a few decades”…?

Each of us has some idea of what is being referenced when the word “race” is used, regardless of context. It has a history that predates my brief tenure on this planet, was old by the time the first African slave was brought to the North American continent, and perhaps is as old as human civilization itself. While the etymology may be as interesting as it is ancient, I’d prefer to restrict my observations and opinions to that period spanning my own experience, with most of that effort focused on what it means today, right now, in 2013, and what it potentially could mean in the future.

I don’t remember when I first heard the word “race”, but I know that my first interaction with persons whose ancestors had come from Africa took place in 1951 in a small town in southwestern Ohio. I am a New Englander by birth and ancestry and I had never encountered what was then referred to as a “colored” person until my father was given a promotion at work that took us half way across the country right after I completed the first grade. Prior to that time, my life included a view of the ocean from my parents’ bedroom window, the smell of salt air, oakum, and baitfish, and very little acknowledgement of the letter “R”.

I met Robert and Jimmy on the first day of second grade, and I have frequently told the story of how Jimmy and I became friends. Within the cascade of changes my life encountered that year, which included having to learn different words for such things as automobiles, soft drinks, ice cream beverages, and haircuts, and more, was the widespread presence of people in my new environment who resembled the character in my Little Golden Book, Little Black Sambo. I also was exposed to a culture that had a remarkably different historical base than the one into which I had been born, and that meant I experienced attitudes and vocabulary I had never met before.

One day, out by the big steel swings on the playground where we had recess on nice days, Jimmy and I had a minor disagreement regarding whose turn was to be next, and I tried out a new word I had learned. I referred to Jimmy as a “nigger”. Jimmy promptly punched me in the nose, we stirred up some dust on the ground, and were marched off to the Office where I received a stern lecture and detention and Jimmy got an apology. After that, we were friends, and I even went home with him after school several times over the next couple of years.

It was a different world back then. Jimmy, and his friend Robert, knew a level of poverty rarely if ever seen any more; at least, not in this country. Nevertheless, I remember them being good natured and not really much different from the rest of my classmates.

My family moved back east after a few years, to a suburb of Philadelphia. We moved there a little more than a year after Rosa Parks made her historic decision to sit where she pleased on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Although most of the headlines spoke of southern events, the entire nation reeled with the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, especially in and around major cities such as Philadelphia. It was a time of anger and fear.

********

Later, I lived in several southern locations over the early years of my adult life, including western North Carolina and the three “points” of Florida, eventually returning to New England in 1979 where I have lived in the state of Maine ever since. It would be quite accurate to say that I grew up with the Civil Rights movement as a central issue of my society, and have seen the gradual changes that have taken place since the days of my friendship with Jimmy, who sometimes didn’t have socks to wear, even in the winter, and 2013 when we have a president whose father was an African and when Jimmy’s grandchildren could very well be doctors and lawyers.

********

One of my earlier recollections of “race” as a topic of academic or intellectual discussion, rather than as a recap of recent headlines or the latest act of violence, was when the professor of an Anthropology course I was taking at college described “race” as an inadequate measure of differentiation. The remark, of course, got our attention. That was some 47 years ago, so I don’t remember the details, but his lectures on the subject made enough of an impression to serve as trail markers whenever I would revisit the issue out of curiosity or some deeper level of interest in subsequent years.

One discussion I remember had to do with the physical characteristics that differentiate what we refer to as “races”. The instructor pointed out several ways in which the Australian Aborigines, who are generally extremely dark skinned, are physiologically more similar to Causasians than to those described as Negroid. On numerous occasions over the years since, I have read various articles and Archeological journal items about the matter, and the science tends to dismiss the term as a legitimate descriptor now. The field of Genetics has come to the forefront since those days, and much has been learned. Nevertheless, The genetic markers identified as being characteristic of certain populations are not significant to the extent that justifies such taxonomic distinctions as “race” with all of it’s social and cultural implications, according to some researchers.

There are disagreements about this, as noted earlier. Some geneticists insist that patterns of differences in genetic “markers” do justify the descriptions of certain groups as constituting different “races”. The inconsistencies and disagreements between different sciences, in my view, supports the view that “race” cannot yet be reliably defined, certainly not to a measure that justifies using the concept and language as a foundation for matters of law and social structure.

Another factor contributing to the inaccuracies in the concept of “race” would be that it has not always referred to observable physical characteristics. In fact, I recently came across an article suggesting that the use of “race” as a term to describe certain differences between light skinned Europeans and dark skinned Africans really didn’t develop until the onset of the slave trade during the eighteenth century. Prior to that “race” had variously been used to differentiate between politically, geographically, or religiously organized groups such as the “Irish race” or the “Jewish race”, and essentially meant “ethnicity”.

The conflict is more about how we respond to observable differences between groups and individuals than about the details themselves.

While it is undeniable that genetics describes the physical characteristics, issues such as intelligence and “behavioral” characteristics are another story. Social skills, traditions, and cultural mores are learned commodities. There have been no valid studies to my knowledge supporting the idea that groups of human beings with certain patterns of physical characteristics demonstrate measurable patterns of intellectual behaviors that can be correlated with their unique genetic markers.

********

The concept of “race”, and its associated language, became adopted during the progression of the Civil Rights movement, probably because it was available and it was convenient. As is often the case when major social shifts necessitate the development of language adaptations to deal with them, “race” took on a life of its own. Equally typical would be the tendency for that language to significantly outlive the events that fueled its creation. Idioms and phrases born during major wars and catastrophes that occurred even centuries ago are still found in common usage sometimes, though we may not be aware of their meanings in their original context. Prolific use of the concept and language of “race” and “racism” today bears a continuously growing potential for counterproductivity, primarily because conditions broadly evident when the Civil Rights movement began half a century ago have, for the most part, been eliminated.

This is not to say there are no longer incidents that a minority may find insulting, hurtful, and generally mean spirited. There are. The good news is that the Jim Crow laws that supported violence and repression are long gone and the overall cultural perspective has shifted from negative or naive to knowledgeable regarding the historical repression of minorities. The bad news, from some viewpoints, would be that the fundamental behavioral processes behind such group differentiation is, well, fundamental. It’s an expression of who and what we are biologically. The subject of “discrimination”, which is a behavioral issue as opposed to a genetic one, will be explored another time. The bottom line is, we all perceive and assess our physical and social environments in preparation for making decisions and initiating actions therein. We need to understand those processes and proceed accordingly.

********

We seem to be at a plateau of sorts in the progression towards more positive interactions among the several subgroups making up the overall population. Some responses that might get things moving in a positive direction again would be to study the phenomenon as it exists today, correct or adapt the associated lexicon to reflect fact rather than tradition, and resist the temptation to simply throw laws and regulations at any perceived conflicts.

The term “race card” would have meant nothing just a few years ago, but now lugs an encyclopedia of implications around with it. What does it really mean, what do people mean when they say it, and how might the same circumstances be described more accurately but without all of the ancillary implications that tend to be attached to it? The same review should be applied to the word “race” itself. All too frequently now, the traditional concept and language of “race” are automatically thrown at virtually any conflict between individuals or groups simply because of appearance and presumed heritage. This has led to a regressive analysis of events based on assumptions about what involved parties may or may not have been thinking and feeling, and how those subjective factors might be declared causatory to any observed actions subsequently taken.

One of the outcomes of this process has been the establishment of a distinct body of laws for dealing with offenses presumed to have been committed because of the attitudes, emotions, and thoughts assumed to have been harbored by the accused. The crime of assault, therefore, is prosecuted differently according to the physical and ethnic characteristics of the participants. I’ve never understood how a person beating up another person could possibly be different than a person beating up another person, depending upon presumed thought processes, which in turn were assumed because of skin color or ethnicity. This same type of thinking has consistently been rejected throughout history as abusive at its mildest and genocidal at its most brutal. Today, if I were to punch my old friend Jimmy in the nose, instead of the other way around, I suspect the matter would be assessed and disciplined quite differently than it was in 1951.

I would suggest that there is no legitimate basis for the concept of “hate crimes”, and that by prosecuting the thoughts behind offenses rather than the offenses themselves we actually perpetuate the very social divide we claim to be trying to eliminate. The idea that an action taken by a member of a minority population against a non-member is less severe than an action taken by a non-minority individual against member of a minority population is illogical and self defeating.

Similarly, by failing to abandon the inherited concepts and language of “race” and “racism”, by not developing new language for describing present day intracultural relations and difficulties, we perpetuate the very thing we are supposedly attempting to eliminate.

 

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