Tag Archives: racism

Superiority and Race

 

People of European descent have long had a grossly exaggerated sense of their own superiority to indigenous people around the world. After all weren’t they politically and technologically dominant around the world? They must be superior. What other explanation could there be? This is part of what I have called the Original Sin.

From that robust sense of superiority sprang the notion that they must have sprung from a superior race.  Even though that notion has been intellectually discredited, this feeling of superiority runs deep. It is easily sublimated when under siege, but invariably bobs up somewhere else.

At one time such notions were convenient. For example, they were used to justify first the destruction of native societies and then slavery and later more subtle forms of dominance over other races. That allowed Europeans to prosper unimaginably from an economic perspective.  It also allowed them to sleep at night, or perhaps, put their conscience to sleep.

It is difficult for us to comprehend objections to what is to our advantage. That is why slavery and  racial bias were so difficult to defeat.  These were convenient biases. Bias has in fact not been defeated in centuries of trying.

Yet this entire feeling of being a superior race is a feeling built on sand. There is no secure foundation for it at all.  Partly because the entire notion of race itself has been discredited. As Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis said in his book The Wayfinders, “science in fact suggests an end to race, when it reveals beyond any reasonable doubt that race is a fiction.” Of course racism is not a fiction!

Science has clearly demonstrated:

“The genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum.From Ireland to Japan, from the Amazon to Siberia, there are sharp genetic differences among populations. There are only geographical gradients. The most remote society on earth contains within its people fully 85 percent of our total genetic diversity. Were the rest of society to be swept away by plague or war, the Waroni or the Barasana, the Rendille or the Tuareg would have within their blood the genetic endowment of all of humanity. Like a sacred repository of spirit and mind, any of these cultures, any one of these 7,000 would provide the sees from which humanity in all its diversity might be reborn.

What all of this means is that biologists and population geneticists have at last proved to be true something that philosophers have always dreamed: We are all literally brothers and sisters. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth.”

This of course is a recurring theme in my blog. I come back to it over and over again. We are connected. None of this should come as surprise to anyone. After all, we are all descendants of a small group of humans, perhaps as small as 150 people, that migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and proceeded to colonize the world. And guess what, those people were likely dark skinned! I remember when we were in Africa a few years ago in what was called “the Cradle of Humanity,” when I mentioned this fact to an evangelical Christian in our group, he was obviously disturbed by that possibility. Why should that be?

The consequence of this is, as Davis said,  “all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works of technological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, or through the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth—a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia—is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities.”

After all how can one say the people of the west who created a great technological society are superior to the indigenous people of North America who learned to flourish and not just live in North America where the Europeans who arrived on contact would have starved or frozen to death? Who can say Europeans are superior to the people of the Amazon rainforest who have learned to live with robust knowledge and experience amidst the natural splendors of their homeland? In particular, when modern industrial society, of which the West is inordinately so proud, has led to the destruction of about half of life on the planet, does it even resemble sense to hold the western ways superior?

Davis got it profoundly right when he said,

“There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilized, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited—indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial conceit that it was.  The brilliance of scientific research and the revelation of modern genetics have affirmed in an astonishing way the essential connectedness of humanity. We share a sacred endowment, a common history written in our bones. It follows, … that the myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us.  They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?  When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the next 2,5000 generations, even as we continue this never-ending journey.” And we need that entire repertoire.

The ignorance of western cultures mired in the excrement of  feelings of superiority is magisterial in its colossal stupidity. There really is no ignorance like it–anywhere any time.

 

Get Out

This film has been almost universally praised, but I felt it was lame. I know it explores racism and even slavery and it is very important to do that, particularly in a country that seems desperate to forget that there ever was, or still is, racism. I just thought the movie was a lame horror flick. And I hate horror flicks. Perhaps my prejudice blinded my limited critical judgment. I wonder what others think. Was I wrong?

More broadly, the fact that this movie earned near universal applause makes me think that perhaps films are universally overrated as an art from. Films are still a very immature art form. Give them time to grow up. Is that true?

Hidden Figures

Early in 2017, Chris and I went to see the movie Hidden Figures as part of our project to see all the movies nominated for best picture. It is unlikely that we will succeed at this project, but the fun is in the chase.

The movie was very enjoyable. The movie tells the story of 3 black women none of us have ever heard of. Its story suggests that without the mathematical and related genius of these 3 women the United States Space program would not have put John Glenn in space to “sort of” catch up with the Russians who had recently put an man in space. It was unacceptable to the Americans that the despised Russians had done it first. President Kennedy wanted to catch up. The glory of America and capitalism demanded that the upstart Commies be put in their proper place–well behind the Americans. There was tremendous pressure on the entire space program led by NASA to catch up and show the world that America and capitalism were superior to Russia and communism.

Part of the American problem was that it was hobbled by prejudice that led to it not using properly women and blacks. It did have a group of white women “computers” and another group of “negro computers” who of course could not work together. They had to be “separate but equal” as the courts had demanded. Of course this meant that a woman mathematical genius that the space program desperately needed had to run more than ½ mile to the “colored washroom.” It just would not do for her to use the white washroom. Of course the white washroom was well-appointed, while the colored washroom was lacking basic supplies. Hardly equal but certainly separate.

The male engineers and mathematical geniuses were loath to accept the contribution of a black woman. It just could not be possible, could it, that she was better at math than the entire room of white men? Well it was clear that she was better and it was clear that she was needed to help the men. This was done by Katherine Goble the central character.

The space program also needed Mary Jackson who had to go to college to be accepted but could not go to classes in the local school which was segregated. The law in Virginia at the time was clear, schools could be segregated. Again the arcane prejudicial rules that made no sense were holding back women who could help the American team. To get to go to school she had to petition the local court and she did so on her own without hiring a lawyer. She made an interesting argument to the white judge. She did not appeal to his sense of fairness, she did not make some innovative legal argument, she appealed to the judge’s vanity and she did in quietly by approaching the bench. She persuaded the judge he could be the first to grant a black woman the right to go to a segregated school in Virginia. He bought that approach and granted her the right to go to the all-white school, but only at night.

Finally Dorothy Vaughan the defacto leader of the black female “computers and a mechanical genius was needed to get the IBM computers working and again she had to struggle against prejudice against blacks, particularly black women, to be freed to help the team. The IBM computer team could not solve the computer problems. Dorothy could because she had learned Fortran computer language by stealing a book from the white side of the local library that barred coloreds from using white books.

Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, aptly characterized the travesty of racism in America as demonstrated by the film.

The insults and indignities that black residents of Virginia, and black employees of NASA, unremittingly endured are integral to the drama. Those segregationist rules and norms—and the personal attitudes and actions that sustained them—are unfolded with a clear, forceful, analytical, and unstinting specificity. The efforts of black Virginians to cope with relentless ambient racism and, where possible, to point it out, resist it, overcome it, and even defeat it are the focus of the drama. “Hidden Figures” is a film of calm and bright rage at the way things were—an exemplary reproach to the very notion of political nostalgia. It depicts repugnant attitudes and practices of white supremacy that poisoned earlier generations’ achievements and that are inseparable from those achievements. [1]

The movie showed how a country could be severely disadvantaged by failing to take advantage of all of its citizens. Each of the 3 cases represented by the 3 women demonstrated the foolishness of racial laws of segregation and how they could hold back the space program. Racism levies a heavy cost not just on the citizen disadvantaged, but also the country in which they live and in which racism thrives. When a country cannot benefit from all of its citizens no one suffers more than that country. Forget about arguments of fairness or natural justice. Racism is bad for business! That is a profound lesson, which America has still not really learned. It has made progress but it is far from free of racism. Racism has just gone deeply underground where its ill effects are harder to detect but no less damaging. Those ill effects are however just as wrong and just as detrimental to the country.

[1] Richard Brody, Hidden figures is a Subtle and Powerful Work of Counter-history,” The New Yorker, (December 23, 2016)