Race in the Modern World
In 1900, in his “Address to the Nations of the World” at the first Pan-African Conference, in London, W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed that the “problem of the twentieth century” was “the problem of the color-line, the question as to how far differences of race—which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair—will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”
Even though he accepted the concept of race, however, Du Bois was a passionate critic of racism. He included anti-Semitism under that rubric, and after a visit to Nazi Germany in 1936, he wrote frankly in The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, that the Nazis’ “campaign of race prejudice … surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.” The European homeland had not been in his mind when he gave his speech on the color line, but the Holocaust certainly fit his thesis—as would many of the centuries’ genocides, from the German campaign against the Hereros in Namibia in 1904 to the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Race might not necessarily have been the problem of the century—there were other contenders for the title—but its centrality would be hard to deny.
Violence and murder were not, of course, the only problems that Du Bois associated with the color line. Civic and economic inequality between races—whether produced by government policy, private discrimination, or complex interactions between the two—were pervasive when he spoke and remained so long after the conference was forgotten.
In recent years, some philosophers and biologists have sought to reintroduce the concept of race as biological using the techniques of cladistics, a method of classification that combines genetics with broader genealogical criteria in order to identify groups of people with shared biological heritages. But this work does not undermine the basic claim that the boundaries of the social groups called “races” have been drawn based on social, rather than biological, criteria; regardless, biology does not generate its own political or moral significance. Socially constructed groups can differ statistically in biological characteristics from one another (as rural whites in the United States differ in some health measures from urban whites), but that is not a reason to suppose that these differences are caused by different group biologies. And even if statistical differences between groups exist, that does not necessarily provide a rationale for treating individuals within those groups differently. So, as Du Bois was one of the first to argue, when questions arise about the salience of race in political life, it is usually not a good idea to bring biology into the discussion.
But at this point, the price of trying to move beyond ethnoracial identities is worth paying, not only for moral reasons but also for the sake of intellectual hygiene. It would allow us to live and work together more harmoniously and productively, in offices, neighborhoods, towns, states, and nations. Why, after all, should we tie our fates to groups whose existence seems always to involve misunderstandings about the facts of human difference? Why rely on imaginary natural commonalities rather than build cohesion through intentional communities? Wouldn’t it be better to organize our solidarities around citizenship and the shared commitments that bind political society?
Still, given the psychological difficulty of avoiding essentialism and the evident continuing power of ethnoracial identities, it would take a massive and focused effort of education, in schools and in public culture, to move into a postracial world. The dream of a world beyond race, unfortunately, is likely to be long deferred
Many thanks to CuriousLurker for bringing this to my attention. I would strongly suggest that anyone interested in the subject matter give this a full reading. I think it’s worth the time.
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