Race and Redemption

Notes for a National Conversation

by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard

© copyright Adams & Goldbard 1994



    The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.... Three centuries' thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed.

    -- W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

    W.E.B. DuBois was right when he looked forward at the beginning of this century and saw the problem of the color line occupying center stage, looming over everything for the next ten decades. But he would probably be disappointed to learn how we stand on the color line in 1994, at century's end. Judging by the progress made since DuBois recorded his famous prediction, it will require -- if we are diligent -- the best part of the 21st Century as well to take up the duty and the deed, to bring the problem to a humane and livable resolution.

    Racism is not a force of nature, but an edifice we humans have built, a cultural institution like an opera house or a church. It enshrines certain cultural values, re-presenting and affirming them for the generations through morally charged dramas -- lynch mobs, Ku Klux Klan rallies, anti-immigration campaigns. Its acolytes encourage us to see and accept the institution as a permanent fixture of our cultural landscape, a rock-solid inheritance rather than a relatively recent and jury-rigged creation. But the truth is that racism, like all cultural institutions, was made by human beings and is subject to our power to act. We can tear down the walls to clear the way for something fresh.

    Racism as we know it has developed through a lop-sided dialectic. In the foreground, we have the imperatives of expansion and the rhetoric of racism, each feeding off the other in a vampire duet. When the United States "needs" more territory, Native Americans are driven off their lands and slaughtered to make room for white settlers. When slaves are "needed" to support the economic expansion of the agrarian South beyond what would be possible with decent living conditions for farm laborers, slave-owners and their elected representatives and pet experts pump up their defense of slavery, drawing on theological, "scientific" and historical accounts. When we "need" freeways to channel the cities' energy into the safe, contained suburbs, diverse urban neighborhoods are condemned, leaving their inhabitants adrift in the decaying urban infrastructure that haunts us today.

    In the background, we hear a countervailing melody: the drive for social and racial justice. Its effects have been life-saving, but fitful. The abolitionist movement eventually prevailed with the defeat of legally sanctioned slavery, but this victory by no means restored full human rights and social equality to African Americans. A hundred years later, the modern civil rights movement defeated legalized segregation, but the world did not wake up transformed. Ever since, the movement has remained insurgent, never achieving the critical mass necessary to make the shift from being the opposition -- trying to put a stop to racism's most egregious crimes -- to undertaking the creative job of building community across the traditional battle lines of racial and cultural conflict. In truth, the last quarter-century has seen enormous reversals that might have seemed impossible to DuBois and other hopeful activists of an earlier era: one step forward and two steps back. The road to justice remains as long and as difficult as ever.

    As these social forces have enacted their centuries-long tug-of-war, a pattern has emerged: waves of racist extremism wash across nations, propelled by imperial designs and socioeconomic pressures, leaving a new social consensus in their wake, a new racial status quo. But no social stasis is permanent. Eventually, counter-waves of activism arise, pushing the consensus in the opposite direction. In just this way, the "lynching fever" of the 1890s and early 1900s led directly to a new status quo: legalized segregation. Though the force of violent, radical racism abated somewhat in the ensuing years, becoming a more localized phenomenon, it left society deeply scarred, with relations between dominant and oppressed groups much worse than when the fever began. This desperate situation gave rise to the civil rights movement of the 20th Century, which was born, with DuBois' help, soon after he published The Souls of Black Folk.

    And so it goes. Today, every citizen has the vote and the right of access to public facilities (such as they are). But for many the quality of life is so diminished by social conditions that the wolf named Despair is always at the door. On the basis of almost every indicator -- health, life expectancy, income, education -- Native Americans and African-American males living in the United States, one of the richest countries on the planet, might as well be living in Haiti. Latino and African-American males are prosecuted and imprisoned at a rate many times their presence in the population; we have burst ahead of South Africa to lead the world in our incarceration rate. A huge proportion of women and children are living in abject poverty, with families of color making up a vastly disproportionate share of the total. Meanwhile, spokespeople for justice work in every community within this country, locked in struggle with the Rush Limbaughs and Robert Doles whose gloating rhetoric of "reverse discrimination" and "revolt of the middle class" inflates by the minute, as if the rightward shift of the Reagan-Bush years hadn't already done more than enough to put the underclass firmly in its place.

    Is the pattern permanent? Are we doomed to repeat the past, cycling through the centuries, locked in struggle with our opponents? Will the cause of justice, dragging the full weight of reaction, continue to limp forward, taking only tiny steps toward progress?

    Not if we can learn from our history and break the cycle.

    The Construction of "Race"

    I am beginning to think that race is an increasingly obsolete way to construct community, because it is based on very immutable, unchangeable biological facts in a very pseudo-scientific way. Racism is an entirely different matter. Racism actually, I think, is at the origins of this concept of race....

    As a matter of fact, in order for European colonialists to attempt to conquer the world, to colonize the world, they had to construct this notion of populations being very firmly divided into certain biological communities. And so, when I use the word "race" now, I put it in quotations because I am interested in community that is not static in that way. This is what I'm working on in my political practice right now, trying to find ways of coming together in a different way.

    -- Angela Davis
    in Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in The Mirror

    One of the chief and most successful strategies used by those representing dominant institutions to protect their power is to claim timeless permanence, to imply that they embody principles which have endured through the ages, have stood the test of time. "Race" is a good example.

    We are trained to see "race" as something deeply and irrevocably encoded in the person, setting us off from one another, the way a fox's encoded essence is to chase and be chased, and a chameleon's to blend in and bide its time. But there is no intrinsic, irreducible quality of "race": some members of the various "races" more closely resemble individuals of another "race" than members of their own. So we can't always tell by looking. Since children do not emerge from their mother's wombs conveniently labeled by race, we've had to draw all our color lines for ourselves. In our industrial societies, every person is said to belong in one of four or five broad categories labeled "race," and unless a person explicitly tells us otherwise (e.g., "I may look white but I am African American"), that judgment is made on the basis of certain physical characteristics -- skin color, hair color and texture, shape of facial features, and so on. For the purposes of the U.S. Census, these categories are considered to be "White," "Black," "American Indian, Eskimo and Aleut," and "Asian and Pacific Islander." A fifth category is listed -- "Spanish origin" -- but it is noted that "persons of Spanish origin may be of any race."

    It is interesting to see how little this system of classification differs from the original one proposed by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1730s as part of his grand scheme for the classification of plants and animals. Linnaeus created a four-part system for human beings: "Albus" (white, i.e., European); "Rubescus" (red, i.e., Native American); "Fuscus" (brownish gray, i.e., Asian); and "Niger" (black, i.e., African). Linnaeus was the chief exemplar -- in fact, the avatar -- of the 18th Century European passion for scientific observation, which had as its goal understanding the world through examination and comparison of physical matter, rather than, say, through divine revelation or mystical allegories.

    About 40 years after Linnaeus, the German Johann Friedrich Blumenbach proposed a five-part racial typology: "Caucasian," "American," "Mongolian," "Malay" and "Ethiopian." In Blumenbach's system, the "Caucasian" type (so-called because he theorized that it had originated on Mount Caucasus in Russia) was the most beautiful and the primary of these races, and all of the others were degenerations from it. (Virtually all racial theories follow this model: Elijah Muhammad's theory, for instance, simply turns this idea on its head, with the black race as primary and purest, and all the others its corrupted and degenerated descendants.)

    Trailing behind Linnaeus and Blumenbach was a long and dishonorable lineage of scholars who may have differed on the particulars but almost always agreed on one thing: that the division of humankind into races reflected differences in value, with whites at the pinnacle of human evolution. For example, here's Jean-Joseph Virey quoted in Reginald Horsman's excellent book, Race and Manifest Destiny (Harvard University Press, 1981),

    The European, called by his high destiny to rule the world, which he knows how to illumine with his intelligence and subdue with his courage, is the highest expression of man and at the head of the human race. The others, a wretched horde of barbarians, are, so to say, no more than its embryo.

    "Race" is a historically constructed idea, invented to lend a patina of moral authority to the assertion of European superiority. No matter how different from its origins the contemporary uses to which the concept of "race" is put, its origins are part of its essence. "Race" is a blunt instrument, entirely unsuitable for the exacting and arduous task of bringing about social justice.

    It has, on the other hand, been employed to justify virtually every repugnant political movement since its invention: the "manifest destiny" of the white man to subjugate the darker peoples of the world; legalized slavery; the "final solution" of the Nazis. It has also proven quite useful in upholding the dominant authorities in our own society. Social scientists have helped police agencies construct criminal profiles, based on the idea that the results of our skewed and corrupt criminal justice system can be used to predict who will commit future crimes: a typical profile describes young African-American males, well-dressed and driving late-model cars. These profiles are featured in every officer's training and taken as gospel by every police agency in the country. In our community, for instance, an isolated rural town with few African-American inhabitants, the local police reliably stop every car driven by a black person, as this summer they stopped and harassed three artists who were visiting us. So the same pseudo-scientific clothing that covered Linnaeus' shame dresses up the worst of institutionalized racism, singling out people of color for extra scrutiny by law enforcement officers and viewers of cop shows, even those who may never meet flesh-and-blood people of color, only their images in the virtual world of commercial TV.

    It's easy to reel off a dozen examples of how the concept of "race" has been use to feed racism. What's hard is coming up with ways it has served the cause of justice. Speaking for ourselves, we two have a very specific vision in mind when we consider the type of social transformation we hope our own efforts will help to bring about. What we dream of is a society -- a world -- in which diversity, particularity and specificity are cherished but where no social, cultural, economic, or political impediment attaches to them; where we can be different, and value our differences, without paying a price for them in human dignity or quality of life. It is a world in which gross categories, indeed all forms of simplistic thinking about human cultures, are useless. It is a world in which there is no necessity to lump all of humankind into four racial categories and make sweeping pronouncements about those categories as if they reflected reality.

    Building the Redemptive Community

    Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate.
    Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair.
    Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt.
    Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice.
    The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

    -- Reverend James Lawson
    Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
    (SNCC) Statement of Purpose (1960)

    One obvious prerequisite to attaining the world we envision is to believe that it is possible. That is hard to do at our particular turning in the cycles of history. It is hard even to read James Lawson's overwhelmingly hopeful statement of purpose; the contrast between its shining faith and the realities of our divided communities seems to hurt the eyes, causes us to look away from the paper and sigh. But the plain fact is that, as his statement expresses, the redemptive community is within our grasp. All of the conditions that oppress, at this moment in history as at any other, are made by human beings and can be unmade by us. This is the knowledge we must somehow spread.

    The lessons of history are powerful assets in this effort. We have to dig deep to find them, though. We need to acknowledge the damage done in the name of "race," to say and feel what we and our forebears have done -- what we have done directly, what has been done by others in our names, and what has been done to us. In aid of this task, the remainder of this essay is written in a practical (and we hope, helpful) frame, to suggest some of the ways that the people we know best -- individuals working in cultural and other community organizations across the country -- can place their knowledge of history at the service of justice.

    Some people argue that racism is hard-wired into our programming as human animals. Maybe it is part of our reptile brain; we can't say for sure. To do that, we'd have to demonstrate that every possible way to fight racism had been tried and failed. There's a long way to go before anyone can make authoritative pronouncements about racism and human nature. Until then, there's a project that needs our attention: building the redemptive community, one brick at a time.

    Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard are cultural and organizational consultants and authors of Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture.

    This essay was first published in HIGH PERFORMANCE magazine, Issue 66, Summer 1994. Be sure to visit the Web site of HP's publisher, Art in the Public Interest. Back issues of this and other editions of HP can be ordered there; selected articles are also available online.

    Return to the Webster's World of Cultural Issues Home Page

    Return to WWCD Home Page

    Webster's World of Cultural Democracy
    The World Wide Web center of The Institute for Cultural Democracy
    icd@wwcd.org (Don Adams, WWCD Project Director)
    P.O. Box 404, Talmage, CA 95481-0404 U.S.A.
    © Copyright The Institute for Cultural Democracy 1995