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Some of my best friends ...

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

I have to begin with a confession about the title. I’m a strong Introvert on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Index. This does not mean that I don’t have friends. But it does mean that my circle of friends is relatively small. Lots of acquaintances, a few friends, a smaller number of very good friends (often related to me professionally), but virtually no one I would call a “best” friend. For me my “best” friends are my three grown children. No, not my wife. She is in a category all her own. But if I had to spend my life on an otherwise uninhabited island with just four other people, I would choose my kids and my wife. I don’t know any other people who are as creative, interesting, entertaining, or caring. This is not to say they are perfect, but …

Back to the title of this blog. It’s a version of the phrase, “I know people of color,” a phrase that Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility asserts should not be said by so-called “white people.” Certainly, this phrase and that of my title both tend to be defensive and dismissive. The title, in particular, can be applied to any number of “others” whether identified by race, ethnicity, sexual identity or any other category. For DiAngelo such phrases are examples of “white people’s” inability to authentically come to grips with what she sees as a virtually congenital racism. In her view the battle against racism is essentially a “white person’s” life’s work. DiAngelo is not without her critics.

But hers is one among many voices that today are calling us to look at ourselves more deeply. Another voice is that of Angela Saini in her work, Superior. She argues against so-called “race sciences.” These are research programs that seek genetic bases for more than trivial differences among diverse populations. She poses that “race” is not a meaningful biological category. This latter point is one that has resonated with me for some time, though again, Saini also has her critics..

Saini also points to ways that so-called “race science” has been used politically to denigrate some populations, promote others, and countenance genocide. Clearly that has been the case in the past. But, today do we discriminate amongst people on the basis of their supposed biological “race”? Do we pre-judge them on the basis of their so-called “race”? The evidence before our eyes and through any honest introspection requires us to say, “Yes!”

But perhaps I’m ahead of myself. I suggest we reconsider Saini's presupposition that “race” is not a meaningful biological concept. Here, it seems to me, we need to begin our consideration with the evidence of human evolution provided by paleoanthropology.

The evolutionary line that lead to our species, Homo sapiens, split from our nearest contemporary species cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, about 7 million years ago (ya). There are two features that distinguish all of the species that emerged along our evolutionary path: bipedality (walking on two feet) and small canine teeth in males and females. Since that evolutionary branching, there have been at least 21 species that predate our own. All of these others have become extinct. As Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program likes to quip, “We [Homo sapiens] are the last biped standing.”

Our species emerged in Africa at least 300,000 ya. Homo sapiens may have made forays out of Africa as early as 185,000 ya but major migration does not appear to have occurred until about 70,000 ya. The external physical features that people use to identify “races” emerged no earlier than 40,000-50,000 years ago. These features were due in large part to genetic drift, natural selection acting on a genetic subset of a larger population separated from the main body as the result of an environmental event (change of a river course, an earthquake, a volcano, etc.) or migration.

Skin color is an example of the evolutionary impact of genetic drift due to migration. The skin color of Homo sapiens has undergone a number of changes over our specie history. Emerging in equatorial regions of Africa our species was originally dark-skinned. Dark skin provided a shield against the impact of the ultraviolet (UV) radiation within sunlight. UV reduces folate (vitamin B9) within the human body. Folate is acquired through the food we eat. A deficiency of this vitamin can compromise fetal development. This is one reason that pregnant women are given folate as a prenatal vitamin supplement.

At the same time sunlight produces vitamin D in our skin. Vitamin D deficiency is a cause of rickets and asthma in children and has been associated with cancer and heart disease in adults and cognitive impairment in older adults. These are pretty strong selective factors.

As Homo sapiens populations migrated to higher latitudes, the intensity of sunlight and UV radiation decreased and so did the dangers of vitamin B9 deficiency. However, less intense sunlight also increased the risk of vitamin D deficiency. Therefore, lighter skin, which allows more UV absorption, was naturally selected for. Then, as Homo sapiens populations migrated further east and south into what is now the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia, darker skin was naturally selected.

With the advent of clothing and later increasing urban living, the effects of sunlight on vitamin B9 levels were mitigated but the risk of vitamin D deficiency increased. Today many of us take a vitamin D supplement because we spend insufficient time in sunlight. A consequence of these evolutionary pressures is that Homo sapiens developed a broad pallet of skin hues.

Skin color is but one feature that has been used to make physiognomic judgments to separate the “races.” Yet skin color is, in fact, simply a genetic legacy of the geographical movements of our forebears. In addition, by virtue of genetic drift due to migration other physiognomic and physiological features have clustered geographically. As noted for millennia lighter-skinned people were clustered in upper latitudes, darker-skinned people in equatorial regions, and brown-skinned folk in mid latitudes. But where you draw the particular boundaries around clusters is, of course, a matter of judgment.

Beyond the clustering of biological features, the migration of Homo sapiens has also resulted in a diversity of geographically clustered cultures. Languages, apparel styles, cuisine, and social practices of particular human populations formed and were modified as these populations migrated across the face of the Earth.

But, whatever our skin color, physical features, or cultural practices, all Homo sapiens are ultimately biological cousins (with the exception of those who are in our direct reproductive line). It’s parents and children all the way back.

Separating people by virtue of their skin color (or any set of physical or cultural features) into distinct “races” is like drawing the boundaries of nations on face of the Earth. From space there are no national boundaries. The Great Wall of China, which can be seen from space, may have been a “national” boundary at one time but is not now.

Certainly geographical features like rivers and mountain ranges and oceans have served and today serve as national boundaries. But that they are boundaries is a cultural artifact, the result of human decisions, decisions that are always open to change.

The surface of the Earth itself changes. Mountains and oceans rise and fall and river courses change. But the rates for these changes are on geological time scales, millennia, whereas cultural change rates are only centuries long and often much shorter than that. National boundaries change culturally in the blink of a geological eye.

So, is “race” a biological category or a cultural artifact? To my mind today the answer is, “Yes.” But the cultural or social roots of the idea of “race” are, I believe, the most significant.

It is cultural and social norms that draw the lines between ourselves and others, between our group and other groups. These lines represent value judgments that all too often elevate us or our group above the others without any substantial or unbiased evidence to justify such judgments, let alone authentic knowledge or understanding of the others. These judgments become embedded in our culture as pre-judgment or prejudice.

Now I have to admit that prejudice or pre-judgment per se is not bad. In the sciences the prevailing theoretical paradigm in a field of research represents a pre-judgment of what scientific observations are supposed to mean. This paradigmatic pre-judgment is the foundation of what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”. When observations do not match the prejudicial theoretical expectations, the stage is set for what Kuhn called “extraordinary science,” research that can lead to new theoretical insight. However, such prejudicial expectations become problematic when they are held dogmatically, when contrary observations become unacceptable, when the theoretical foundations of a field of inquiry are beyond reconsideration.

Similarly, religious dogmatism is the unwavering imposition of a theological paradigm, assumed to be immutable, on a cultural landscape of religious experience not fully compatible with it. Dogmatism is the presumption of not only “having all the answers” but “knowing all the questions.” Such dogmatic theological prejudice can blind us to the possibilities of transformative theological insight. Jesus was not immune to theological and

ethnic prejudice. His encounter with the

Syro-Phoenician woman demonstrates how such prejudice can wall us off from one another. But her persistence and his reaction also demonstrate how she was able penetrate his prejudice enabling him to move beyond it to a broader understanding of his calling.(Mark 7:25-29)

When dubious prejudices are dogmatically held and rigidly inform actions that advantage one’s own group at the expense of other groups, particularly when that action involves force, then these pre-judgments are not simply dubious but pernicious. Pernicious prejudice is one of the legacies of American history.

From time to time new immigrants have come to these shores and brought with them their cultural heritages. Early on the social opportunities of such immigrants were prejudicially constrained. Irish, Italians, and Chinese among others experienced such dubious prejudice. Yet, by the second or third generation, the children of these ethnic groups for the most part became American and many of their distinctive cultural practices became integral to American culture. Ethnically originating cuisine, fashion and music have become inherent in American culture.

However, indigenous Americans had their home lands taken by European colonizers, who viewed them as “primitive” or “savage.” 19th century American geographic expansion under the banner of “manifest destiny” further imposed boundaries on the lands of indigenous Americans. But forcible taking of land and relocation (e.g., the "Trail of Tears") was but one form of intrusion into the lives and culture of the earliest “Americans”. There was in addition a dismissal of their culture in favor of supplanting it with "enlightened" Euro-American ways, all in the name of beneficence.

In 1803 no less than Thomas Jefferson wrote to members of the Choctaw Nation:

“I rejoice, brothers, to hear you propose to become cultivators of the earth for the maintenance of your families. Be assured you will support them better and with less labor, by raising stock and bread, and by spinning and weaving clothes, than by hunting. A little land cultivated, and a little labor, will procure more provisions than the most successful hunt; and a woman will clothe more by spinning and weaving, than a man by hunting. Compared with you, we are but as of yesterday in this land. Yet see how much more we have multiplied by industry, and the exercise of that reason which you possess in common with us. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure …”

By the late 19th century this “cultural beneficence” resulted in taking the children of these earliest “Americans” and placing them in “boarding schools,” whose aim was to separate them from the cultural heritage of their ancestors and to force them to adopt the emerging Euro-American culture. They were not only deprived of their land but of their culture.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor over 10,000 Americans of Japanese descent were removed from their homes and interned in camps mostly in California or the southwest. For more than two and a half years these families remained incarcerated and deprived of their liberty until decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court forced their release.

Ironically, during World War II both Native Americans and Nisei Americans distinguished themselves in combat. The Navaho and other indigenous Americans served as “code talkers” providing secure combat communications in the war in the Pacific and Europe. Nisei army units fought with distinction in North Africa, Italy and participated in the liberation of Rome. The largest American minority group, those with African ancestors, although separated like their Nisei counterparts in segregated military units, also made their mark in the war effort. The Tuskegee Airmen is perhaps the best-known unit.

Yet, in spite of their wartime contributions and also their many broader cultural contributions to American life (music, cuisine, science, education, the economy …), Americans of African descent have borne the heaviest burden of pernicious prejudice.

Africans came to America not as free people but were brought to this land as chattel slaves, as property to be bought and sold and put to work as unpaid labor. Even when politically “liberated” these people and their heirs continued to be disadvantaged through the Jim Crow laws that fenced them off from access to the social, economic and educational goods of America. Such pernicious prejudice continues today. It manifests itself in a form of explicit or more often subtle, implicit racism. It is an idolatry of race, a worship of self and group to the disparagement of others, even when not self-recognized.

In Deuteronomy there is a restatement of the Ten Commandments. Of idolatry it says:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.”

Ezekiel tells us that the people of Israel in Babylonian captivity cited a traditional proverb to describe their situation:

"The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.”

Lincoln saw the Civil War as a punishment for the persistence of slavery in America. In his 2nd Inaugural Address he wrote:

“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Today the roots of our social unrest, the legacy of injustice that continues to pervade virtually all dimensions of our common life, draw from the soil of racism laid down in the foundations of American history by the institution of slavery. In an 1886 speech on the 24th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglas declared:

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

In the light of the science of paleoanthropology there may not be any biological races but that does not rule out cultural and systemic racism; that is, disparities in access to social goods among various ethnic groups, privileging some and depriving others, perpetuated through institutions and social mores.

“But, wait!” I cry. “I'm a descendant of European colonizers and immigrants some of whom may have owned slaves but I never did! I hold no prejudice against any race! I have worked hard for what I have. I never deprived anyone of anything. I'm just middle class. How can anyone say I'm privileged?"

Well, consider this analogy ...

I'm part of a team of long distance runners. The officials for the race are alumni of my team. They recruit another competitive team for the race but require them to start by wearing heavy weights. The gun goes off and we start together. After a while the officials allow the other team to drop their weights but reorganize their path so that it now has steeple chase obstacles. Awhile longer the officials return the other team's path to a condition similar to my team's path. What are the results of these actions?

As a runner I have not done anything but run. But would you say that I was "privileged" in comparison to the runners on the other team? Wouldn't their times at any particular distance be worse than those of my team? Wouldn't they expend more energy to go the same distance as members of my team? Wouldn't they lag behind my team at every point in the run? Wouldn't my team have benefited during the run even though we did nothing but run and did nothing to make our path better for us? But, wouldn't an impartial review of the data from the run strongly suggest that the other team was disadvantaged to the benefit of my team?

The analogy may not be a great one, but consider the following real data about our current social state in America.

Is this data evidence of Euro-American ("white") privilege or the fruit of African-American disadvantage? Again, it seems to me the answer is, "Yes?" Privilege and disadvantage are, as in the run analogy, two sides of the same coin.

Current social disparities are not the result of my actions as a white, Scots-Irish, Presbyterian with southern cultural roots. But, my station in life is due, in part, to the fact that I am a member of a population that began with and perpetuated advantages of opportunity from the founding of this nation. Further, my forebears deliberately did not share access to social goods with those people brought to this land against their will. Nor did my people, upon the liberation of these other folk, assure that they would be welcomed as part of a more diverse community and helped to overcome their disadvantage for which my forebears were responsible. These disparities then are prima facie evidence of injustice.

Injustice experienced, is a direct material injury that also wears on the spirit. Injustice ignored, is a cancerous pathology that corrodes the moral consciousness. The former can be relieved by material intervention through the enactment of laws and public policy that directly address the injury and provide concrete pathways for rehabilitation. The latter requires a deeper intervention at the level of the cultural genome that will have side-effects, will not guarantee absolute remission, and will require ongoing vigilance against resurgence.

The disease of injustice, that is perpetuated mostly unseen by the majority of those who comprise the social body of America, erupts from time to time in inflamed boils of social trauma. It is not enough to lance the boils. They are, as Frederick Douglas noted, only symptomatic of the deeper disease. Social health can not be gained until the disease itself is addressed. A strong intervention is required that is both practical and cultural.

The city of Asheville, NC, recently provided a small scale example of one practical form of intervention when its City Council adopted a plan to promote African American homeownership and business opportunities. Efforts need to be made to scale such a policy intervention up to a national level. National investment in public education especially in pre-school and elementary education needs to be focused in those communities where educational achievement, a prerequisite for economic advance, has lagged.

I have long been impressed by the technical prowess of the Playing for Change videos. The title is a play on words. Th project began as a series of video mixes of street musicians from around the world. It has become an institution seeking to inspire and connect people of diverse cultures through music. One of its paradigmatic songs is Bob Marley's "One Love." This is, to my mind, an example of an effort to provoke attitudinal change of the sort that is needed within America among our socially divided communities.

There was much dissension in the young Christian Church in Corinth. There was tension between the well-to-do and those of lesser means. There was legal wrangling amongst the members. As capital of the Roman province of Achaea it was a center for trade with a culturally diverse population. This diversity was apparently reflected in the church membership and seems to have been one precipitating factor for the disquiet in the church. In a letter to this troubled Christian community Paul, the Apostle, used an analogy to help them understand both their interdependence and their unity

"For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.... If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.... If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

The motto of the United States of America is E pluribus unum, "Out of many, one." Could Paul's analogy apply to this nation - a nation of immigrants from all corners of the world, a nation with diverse ethnic roots, a nation with a broad palate of skin colors? In this historical moment in American life can we recognize that by nature we are all common fruit on the tree life - one species, one human "race"? Can we accept that what divides us most profoundly is not biology but culture? Can we accept responsibility for participating in the perpetuation those disparities of access to the common goods of life? Can we be committed to redressing those disparities without condescension or resentment?

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