Four Questions for the Sick

I sometimes teach a college course on the topic of race. One of the assignments I give students is to go home and discuss our readings with family and friends. Very often, the white students report back that, in response, they encounter immediate and heated tirades from white friends or relatives. “I am so sick and tired of hearing about race!,” comes the retort. “Why don’t people stop trying to force this junk on us?”

When this happens, I suggest to my students that they note how very remarkable this extremely common reaction really is. Until the last few decades, very few white people had ever entertained the notion that race was anything but what white supremacists have always claimed it is — a simple observation of deep, biological, intellectual differences between rankable human appearance groups. Now, in the first or second post-Jim Crow generation of whites, many white folks are convinced they are “sick of hearing about race!”

This, of course, is like telling your doctor you’re “sick of hearing about cancer” on your first post-diagnosis return visit — then storming out of the office.

Now, I always tell my classes that sociologists dwell on bad news and trouble not because we are sado-masochists, but because you have to understand problems in order to fix them. Just as you study tumors in medical school, so you delve deeply into racism, sexism, and capitalism in the social sciences.

With this in mind, my students and I have begun to develop a list of questions for the “sick of hearing about race” crowd. So far, we have found that, as you might predict, those who are “sick of hearing about race” actually seem not to have heard the first thing about its empirical realities.

Here are some of the extremely basic questions and issues on which the “sick” invariably
have no serious information:

1. What is a race?

For the past several centuries, white supremacists have been promising that modern science would soon prove the deep inequality of the groups of people with similar skin color, eye shape, and hair texture conventionally labeled “races.” Blood chemistry, head shape, brain size, and IQ tests — one or more of these designated “white hopes” would one day prove the truth of racism, it was assumed.

Of course, each advance in biological knowledge has debunked the white supremacists’ hopes. Now, armed with rich new levels of information about genetics and population dynamics, modern biologists have actually been able to bury the hopes of scientific racism. The Human Genome Project has documented both the extreme degree of commonality between all human appearance groups and the fact that the range of genetic variations between individuals is almost as wide within such groups as between them.

“Race,” in other words, has proved to be a biological fiction. To the extent the groups we calls “races” have genetic differences, these are few and superficial only. In the words of the late, great evolutionary scholar Stephen Jay Gould:

There just hasn’t been time for the development of much genetic variation, except that which regulates some very superficial features like skin color and hair form. For once, the old cliché is true. Under the skin, we really are effectively the same. And we get fooled, because some of the visual differences are quite noticeable.

2. If race isn’t real, why continue to dwell on it?

Race is a biologically trivial category. There are no deep biological differences between races. Nevertheless, race is real.

How is that possible? Are you trying to trick me?

No, because, as everybody knows (at least in their calm and rational moments), human myths often take on a life of their own. If we believe something is real, we act as if it is real, regardless of the evidence. If enough people act on mythical beliefs, the mythical beliefs wind up deeply shaping everybody’s thoughts, perception, assumptions, and actions.

When it comes to race, this context leaves you with three choices:

1. White supremacy, which continues to hold that both senses of “race” — the claim of deep biological differences and the social behavior — are true;

2. Acknowledgment that race is real, but only socially so; or

3. The ostrich reaction, which (without really thinking) uses the disproof of biological race as an excuse to deny the social-behavioral realities.

Those who “sick of hearing about race” are squarely in the ostrich camp. Congratulating themselves for (allegedly) abandoning their grandfathers’ racial views, these folks just want to wish it all away. In the process, they take the liberty of equating their own wishfulness with external reality, where they see no more racism.

3. Why do all these “minorities,” and especially blacks, continue to complain about racism?

This familiar question demonstrates the utter lack of any sense of timeframes in the mind of the “sick” asker.

Consider the most elementary fact of race relations in the United States — the sheer number of years spent in varying basic conditions. This pie chart depicts the division of time in white-on-black relationship from the time of the Mayflower to now:

When somebody says they are “sick of hearing about race,” they are unwittingly proposing that the 11% slice of legal equality in the overall timeframe is all that matters. Once “we” (read: the Civil Rights Movement) abolished Jim Crow, the weight of the other 89% flew off into outer space.

If true, this of course would have the one and only case in human history in which 345 years of harsh, heavily-promoted behavioral and cognitive conditioning completely dissipated in less than a mere 42 subsequent years. Alas, we know all too well that, however great our human capacity for change and improvement, they are nowhere near this great.

4. Even if race is still socially real, why does it matter so much?

The first part of the answer is once again extremely basic history. How many of those who are “sick of hearing about race” could provide any coherent explanation of this series of unfortunate events:

– the slave trade

– the definition of black people in the main body of the United States Constitution

– the flaws in the Emancipation Proclamation

– the Compromise of 1877

– Jim Crow

Plessy v. Ferguson

– the Dred Scott case

– “Birth of a Nation” in the White House

– Emmett Till, Freedom Riders, Medgar Evers, 04/04/1968, etc.

The second part of the answer is exactly why Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered — the unmentionable five-letter word c-l-a-s-s.

After the Civil Rights Act ended legal apartheid in 1965, did Dr. King retire to the tennis court? No, he told his aides “we are now engaged in the class struggle,” and proceeded to try to turn the Civil Rights Movement into an anti-capitalist movement. “What good is it to be allowed to sit at a lunch counter,” King remarked, “if you can’t afford a hamburger?”

The point of such observations was also extremely basic sociology — in a highly stratified society, being victimized by racism over any substantial period will inexorably turn “race” into “class.” As Stephen Steinberg explains, the economic, political, and ideological terms on which a group enters a place like the United States strongly tend to send members that group to particular “class locations.”

Simple timing also matters greatly: If Jim Crow laws were erased in 1900 at the beginning of U.S. industrial boomtimes, rather than 5 years prior to the decade in which stagflation, globalization/deindustrialization, and capitalist restoration were launched, things would now be very different.

Meanwhile, totally ignorant of all this, what do the “sick of race” imagine 345 years of slavery and court-enforced, violently-policed apartheid did to African-Americans starting points in life? The evidence there is overwhelming and easily obtainable.

In the United States, class deeply shapes a child’s odds of getting an excellent education, inheriting money and property, and developing a hopeful worldview and a pro-active yet mainstream “power” personality.

Again, in their calmer moments, everybody knows all this is true. Indeed, the resume-stuffing, soccer-momming middle-class seems to be spending virtually all its waking efforts trying to ensure that its mid-level advantages don’t get further eroded.

Racism has and does make it much harder for non-white people to achieve even middle-class comfort, not to mention capitalist power. In calm and rational moments, even the sick should be able to see this obvious fact.

The fact that they refuse to do so strongly suggests that their sickness remains undiagnosed.

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