In the event you missed the news, John Derbyshire recently wrote a bewilderingly racist essay that got him removed as a contributing editor to National Review. His topic: what white parents should tell their white children about race, most particularly blacks. His short answer: Stay away from them. They’re mostly stupid and prone to criminality.
Derbyshire’s answer is, of course, repugnant, but his topic is not: what should whites teach their children about race?
As a white parent of two white daughters, ages five and eight, it’s an issue that will begin to come up. And, contra John Derbyshire, I have numerous non-racist ways that I plan to reflect on the subject with them. Here are three:
1. The man with the hoe. I’ll show them the above painting by Jean-Francois Millet titled, “Man with the Hoe” (c. 1860), and ask them to share with me what they see. I assume they’ll observe things like the following: a young man leans on his hoe, exhausted from labor; he’s poor; he’s outmatched by an unfriendly environment; his dignity against great odds is admirable; etc.
Then here’s what I’ll share with them about it:
This is your ancestor. This is everyone’s ancestor—whether white, black, hispanic, or Asian. 99% of all human beings, whatever their skin color, have lived and died like this man: poor, uneducated, working long hours with their hands.
A minuscule part of your ancestry consists of educated or wealthy individuals who lived well. The vast, vast majority of them looked exactly like this man. Your ancestry, therefore, is the same as people from other races.
Racism is historical memory loss—forgetting that all people have come from a man exactly like this—the man with the hoe.
And notice that the man holds a tool. Humans are tool using animals. There are two kinds of tools: tools for physical labor (hoes, shovels, wheelbarrows) and tools for mental labor (books, smart phones, taking walks in solitude). Absent tools, human beings are scarcely different from one another.
Tools, not race, are key. Think of a person, for example, boasting that he can hit, with his hand, a baseball farther than you. That might be true, but wouldn’t it be silly to take a lot of pride in this? Absent a bat, the difference between your hit and his wouldn’t be all that much. But, with a bat, you can outhit most anybody who is just using his hand.
And notice the head on this man. It contained a big brain. Isn’t it tragic that he never got to develop it fully? Don’t you think this man, your ancestor, wanted you to use your brain, and have a better life than he had: a life where the brain, and not just the hands, is exercised to the fullest?
The man with the hoe is Adam; a man under Adam’s curse (Gen. 3); the curse of hard physical labor without the opportunity to fully develop his mind.
And because the man with the hoe could neither travel nor obtain much by way of education or property, his sources of pride, if he had any at all, consisted of all that was familiar to him: his family, his tribe, his country, his religion, his race.
It doesn’t have to be like this anymore. People over the last 100 years have slowly begun, by the assistance of intellectual tools, to grow richer; many are no longer subject to Adam’s curse. They needn’t, therefore, be confined to Adam’s sources of esteem. They can now travel and go to college and befriend people from different races and cultures. They can live in cities. They can evaluate one another for exactly what they are: individuals displaying skills with different tools. And they can see one another as brothers and sisters—as one of the billions upon billions of descendants of the man with the hoe.
2. Edwin Markham. I’ll also share with my kids an ekphrastic poem (a poem responding to art). In the late 1890s, Edwin Markham was visiting San Francisco and found himself awestruck by Millet’s painting of “The Man with the Hoe” (which now resides as part of the permanent collection of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, if you’re curious to see it in person). Concerning the painting, Markham concluded that “There is no shape more terrible than this—“. The poem he wrote was subsequently published, on January 18, 1899, in the San Francisco Examiner. Here’s the poem’s first half:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And pillared the blue firmament with light?
Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this—
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed—
More filled with signs and portents for the soul—
More frought with menace to the universe.
What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades? […]
The rest of the poem can be read here, but my point in showing this poem to my kids will be this: racism is a stupidity, for the deciding factors in human destiny are intellectual tools and habits. If there are differences between the races, those differences are trivial in the absence of these two things. A white person and a black person absent intellectual tools and habits are the man with the hoe—essentially the same. The tools of the intellect are books, learning how to think critically, school, intellectual dialogue, etc. For the man with the hoe, Plato and astronomy (the swing of Pleiades) are nothing to him.
And here’s the kicker: the majority of white people are not actually engaged with intellectual tools and habits, and yet many of them fancy themselves belonging to a race that is intellectually superior to others. In other words, whites that derive pride from their whiteness qua whiteness are being foolish: they don’t even know that the deciding factor in intellectual differences between individuals is their use (or non-use) of intellectual tools and their habits. If you pick up a book rarely or never, you are scarcely different from anyone else who picks up a book rarely or never. And if you have a poor memory, but possess a smart phone, your recall is better than someone with a good memory.
The key to success in contemporary life is to obtain the intellectual tools and habits that will make you intelligent. Human beings, to be all that much different from one another, need tools. And, collectively, we’re all heading in the direction of becoming cyborgs anyway (biology and technology seamlessly integrated), living overwhelmingly in mixed race cities (90% of humans will live in cities by the end of this century, demographers say), each of us connected to the Internet. Race, as a concern or obsession, ought to be an artifact of earlier centuries, not this one. And, of course, this is increasingly the case.
3. Chess. Lastly, I’ll play with my kids a game of chess in which they play black and I play white. Then I’ll tell them the following:
Knowing how to play chess doesn’t make you smarter than someone who doesn’t know how to play, it just makes you more fortunate: you’ve been exposed to a tool that builds certain of your intellectual skills that others haven’t. Likewise, others have been exposed to tools you don’t know how to use. That doesn’t make them smarter than you. It just means that they’re developed in a way that you’re not.
How someone uses her brain is partly dependent on contingencies (inherited temperaments; environmental exposures, etc.), but most human brains start out more or less the same in sheer horsepower. The question is what tools you’ll become expert at using, and which ones you won’t. The neurons in your brain will shape themselves around your habits of mind and your behaviors. To echo Thomas Aquinas, your habits become your habitus (your habitation). The configuration of your brain’s neurons is called your connectome. Your connectome, not the color of your skin, makes you the unique individual that you are, and that means you’ve got choices to make. Who do you want to be? What habits will you pick up for yourself? What tools will you become expert at using? How will you shape your connectome?
I’ll also say this about evaluating others:
When you first meet someone, ask this: What tools does that person know how to use—and likes to use? That will tell you far more about that individual than the color of her skin. Given the sheer inertia of stereotypes that accompany skin color, and our penchant to dehumanize one another through reference to skin color, you’re likely to misperceive others, not perceive them more accurately, by focusing on race.
This is why the African American novelist, Ralph Ellison, titled his 1952 novel, Invisible Man. White people at that time, having acquired the dull habit of making up their minds about others based on race, had enormous difficulty seeing past the color of his skin to the man underneath, so he wrote a novel dramatizing this state of affairs. We needn’t make the same mistake in the 21st century; we needn’t make one another invisible, hidden behind a screen of stereotypes. We can adopt new habits for seeing one another—non-racist habits that remove the screen of prejudice. When you sum up others based on skin color, you rob from them their humanity and fail to judge them accurately.
Here I am playing chess with my daughters. They won, by the way. What intellectual tools are you exposing your children to, and what intellectual habits are they developing?