The Race Talk: Some Things I’ll Tell My Kids about Race (Contra John Derbyshire)

File:Jean-François Millet - L'Homme à la houe.jpg

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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30 Responses to The Race Talk: Some Things I’ll Tell My Kids about Race (Contra John Derbyshire)

  1. Cody says:

    This is a great post, professor. You’re outlook on race in reference to “Man with the Hoe” reminds me a lot of the early work of George Schuyler, who argues essentially that race is a social construction to divide the working class. He says that poor white people and poor black people behave in much the same way, arguing that racial essentialism is a serious problem. It’s sad to see that in many ways, that problem is still around.

  2. andrewclunn says:

    I found John Derbyshire’s article to be a refreshingly different perspective. That there’s some truth to it is undeniable. That saying as much makes one a social pariah is laughable.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Andrew,

      Refreshing is not the right word. This is old meat. Please share with me a specific example of something that: (1) is true in his piece; and (2) should be dealt with in his preferred way—by either avoidance or patrician habits of prejudice that function as “rules of thumb” for white-black interaction.

      How do you see individuals if you’re not in the habit of looking for them?

      —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        Racism is only wrong if it’s untrue. I’m not talking about the institutionalized kind (which is clearly wrong) but the notion of individual prejudice. In that sense saying that, “People in this group or who have this trait also tend to have, think, or do this,” is not somehow more wrong or right simply because the trait is something genetic. It’s correlation. Whether it’s causal or not is another discussion.

        Whether to teach your children about these correlations is a matter of practicality. Is it more likely to benefit them to not judge people based on racial categories, or to have certain stereotypes? In the case of blacks, when looking at the crime data, IQ test scores, the culture and media put out as “black entertainment” by blacks, (and considering the strong racism against Asians within the black community if your children are Asian) it’s conceivably to their advantage to if your children see blacks as less trustworthy. The advice about avoiding living in areas that continually elect black politicians (to give an example from the article) is very good advice.

        If a particular subspecies of humanity did display less intellectual prowess and self control, how would they be likely to find equality in a free society? The answer is they wouldn’t. Some individuals would, but by and large their progeny would live in poverty and (assuming the absence of a welfare state) the subspecies would likely reduce dramatically in percentage of population. This would not indicate systemic bias against them in the system, but would be the natural result of natural selection.

        Hispanics tend to be poor if they are recent immigrants or first generation, but after a few generations they equalize with the rest of society. Asians have a similar story except that portions of them appear to fair even better than the average. This is true for both Asians that have assimilated and ones that maintain their culture. It could just be that black culture in the US is so toxic that it continually results in worse outcomes, but the contemporary “black culture” is a modern phenomena. Also IQ test scores do not show this great disparity among other racial groups. The sane rational conclusion is that blacks tend to be mentally inferior to other races, and so for the sake of your future progeny, you would not want your children to say, have a half black baby. Thus, making them aware of this deficiency within the black population is an advantageous thing from an evolutionary perspective.

        Or TLDR: Racism against blacks persists while other forms of racism are dying out because it’s true and it works.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Andrew,

        I agree with you that racists in the United States tend to be narrowing their target to American blacks. This target narrowing is all the more reason to resist it intellectually and make different distinctions. The Nazis also target-narrowed onto a singular group—Jews.

        Racism directed toward blacks is racism’s last stand. 21st century racists wish to make it appear that racism has always been rational, just improperly calibrated. They’re done erecting their hate on Hispanics and Asians and want all of us to now erect our hate on just one small and vulnerable minority in America: the descendants of the slaves. They’ve got the target right now.

        Well, they don’t have the right target. There should be no target. The black individual living in America should not be rendered invisible by the racism directed his or her way. It’s invariably self-reinforcing (both in the self-image of the person rendered invisible and the person who renders another invisible).

        As a teacher, I know this firsthand. If you treat people of whatever race like they’re capable of reaching certain intellectual jumps, they’ll tend to reach them (sometimes even surprising themselves). Most people have more than adequate brain power and self-control to function well in society, but they may have acquired bad intellectual or impulsive habits or simply have not been exposed to the right tools.

        I can’t tell you how often, for example, I’ve been told by students after the end of a semester that they hated art or literature before I shared with them intellectual tools and methods for accessing it. That’s an environmental exposure that influenced them in their lives. Where I’ve made “converts,” their habits are likely to change as well (picking up difficult books and going to art museums on their own).

        Half of Americans, by contrast, think we’re in the end times as predicted in the Bible. Is that because their brains don’t work well or because they’ve downloaded some bad intellectual aps? That seems to me a product of an intellectually noxious environmental exposure, not inherently weak brain hardware.

        The habits and tools we adopt are within our power to change. Making race important and maintaining it as a determinate category, limiting potential and self-image, is to box people in. In my view, we are cyborgs intimately tied up with our tools, and we all have good hardware. It’s what we load ourselves with that counts.

        In other words, all human beings—except perhaps psychopaths—have brains that can, by habit and exposure to tools, access the “better angels of our nature” (reason, self-control, empathy, etc.).

        Race as an important category for thinking about people is an ap that leads people who download it into their brains into outmoded and inefficient ways of thinking (outmoded and inefficient insofar as they fail to arrive at the complicated truth of matters). It leads to too many correlation-causation fallacies, and makes us ignore things we shouldn’t (such as the effect of intellectual tools on outcomes).

        The truth, being complicated, is not helped along by racist modes of thought. It’s using a toilet plunger where you need, perhaps, a clamp or magnifying glass for making better and closer distinctions.

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        Wait. So am I supposed to take references to the Nazi’s, apocalypse preachers, or toilet plungers as the counter argument? Or maybe the personal anecdotes or references to “the better angels of out nature?” I’m not really seeing what your point was. You’re making it sound like I’ve been taken in by racists but at the same time wouldn’t that then make me a racist? I will hold myself to the evidence and the truth regardless of where it leads me.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        But you’re not following the evidence. The evidence is all around us that blacks and whites share the same rich inner life and the same giant hominid brain. They share a recent common ancestor from Africa. They share the same “better angel” and “bad angel” brain areas. They also both have more than enough brain power and self-control to make good use of the good tools they are exposed to.

        The evidence is also clear that we are exposed to lots of bad tools and bad habits and bad temptations. (Think of obesity, advertising, and corruption on Wall Street.)

        We can change such things and download better aps into our brains.

        Conservatism’s cynicism about race (blacks specifically) and the possibilities for good race relations is deluded.

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        We also share a common ancestor with every animal on the planet. That has no bearing on this topic. Also the “better angels / bad angels” dualism stuff is just… well it has no place in a rational discussion. I made several factual claims in my earlier post. Are any of them untrue? Is the discussion today not, “Why are blacks underachieving so much?” rather than, “Are blacks underachieving?” You say I’m not following the evidence, where is the evidence in the post you just made? All I’m seeing here are a lot of emotional appeals.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        “Better angel-naughty angel” is just my shorthand for saying that all humans have modular brains, and that different parts of the brain can be activated, reinforced, habituated. Barack Obama’s mother, for example, used to wake him at 4 in the morning and home school him before he started regular school. If she hadn’t put this extra energy into him, he might well not be president today.

        My argument is that there’s no reason whatsoever to give up on black people as a whole because they happen to lag, as a group, behind other groups right now. The factors at work in this lag are multiple.

        For example, you, as a fan of libertarianism, have an environmental theory that government assistance causes dependency and getting rid of it strengthens independence. Maybe that’s true. But, if it is, then it means that things can be different. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

        If half of what we become has to do with genetic constraints and half comes via environmental constraints, I think it’s quite obvious that environmental options leave room for hope. For example, if the most plausible range of a population’s height, based on its genetic make-up, is 5’4″ to 6 feet, and you keep seeing people in that population only reaching, on average, 5’5″, then you can improve a population’s diet and start to see them reaching an average height of 5’10”. You just have to figure out the optimum diet and you might start seeing everybody closing in on 6 feet.

        I think this is true of intellectual tools as well. Get those right, and you can move people past the current (dismal) average for brain performance (the way people use their brains and arrive at conclusions). I would call it racist not to include blacks in this optimism.

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        “For example, you, as a fan of libertarianism, have an environmental theory that government assistance causes dependency and getting rid of it strengthens independence. Maybe that’s true. But, if it is, then it means that things can be different. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

        That is the argument from the utilitarian libertarians (who may be right) but I am not one of them. I’m a Social Darwinist, remember? I would see the welfare state gone so that those who are unable to take care of themselves die off and humanity’s evolution is not supplanted by a banal push to mediocrity by the continuous reproduction of the dependent and impoverished.

        Remove the welfare state. If it has been a mechanism holding back the blacks, then let them rise to the occasion with humanity. If it has been the life line by which we have dragged them along, then let natural selection remove them from the gene pool. I am not a spokesperson for racism. I speak on behalf of the uncaring unsympathetic universe that holds human life as having no automatic or exceptional value distinguishing it from any other form of existence. If there is anything special about humanity it is found in our achievements enabled by our intellect. Our genes and human form are nothing more than a means to the ends, which are our endeavors. I hold no contempt for blacks, but if as a subspecies they are incapable of the grand feats of discovery, invention, and engineering made by the other races, then I would not mourn their passing either.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, if survival is the sole criteria of success, then humans that try “shark strategies” for survival (as opposed to cooperative and nurturing “bonobo strategies”), and succeed with them, are okay?

        Really?

        A “shark” with an engineering or business degree from Harvard would please you (if he expanded his reproductive advantage and territory)? Would this constitute an advance in human existence?

        What you say above is an example of why I (personally) worry about agnosticism and atheism detached from humanism and leaning, instead, toward Nietzscheanism.

        When I think back on my own life, I know with a moral certainty that I would not be where I am today if a couple of key people hadn’t put some extra love and energy into me (a grandmother and two teachers). I’m quite certain I would have died in childhood but for my grandmother, for example (my mom died of leukemia when I was five). A couple of books proved formative as well. These are the angels of my own existence.

        No person is an island. Our success as a species is not just in the realm of the intellect, but in empathy and imagination. Blacks are obviously able to function at every level of society; they’re not inferior to other people. And your historical window is very narrow. A thousand years from now, it may be that the historical wheels have turned yet again, and Africa is the world’s economic powerhouse. It’s largely the innovations of the Enlightenment and the discovery of scientific method that launched Europeans far ahead of the rest of the world over the past few hundred years, and now India and China are moving forward.

        When someone says, for example, “gay marriage is not normal,” I say, “15,000 years from now it may seem quite normal, and the past 5000 years of human history will appear anomalous.” Likewise, I say widen your historical window. The rapid development of the past couple of thousand years has been a blip in time, and our own racial divergences are too recent (about 200,000 years), evolution-wise, to make for the extreme differences you posit.

        —Santi

  3. Paradigm says:

    He may well be a racist but there is something to what he says. If you walked home late at night and had the choice of one alley with some black guys and another with some white guys would you flip a coin? And would you encourage your daughters to do the same?

    To choose the “white” alley is not racism. Racism would be to avoid the black alley even if you knew there was no greater risk involved.

    In reality I think your daughters, like most kids, will adopt Derbyshire’s strategy and settle in a predominantly White/Asian area and avoid black people they don’t have personal information about. What they will learn from you is that they should never talk about this strategy openly. Or even worse, they will learn to act as Derbyshire while convincing themselves that they think like you.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      1 out of every 100 males on the planet is a psychopath. That’s what psychologists tell us. This means that you need to be cautious around men in general, especially if you’re female. It has ever been thus. And the crime rate in the United States is at 1950s levels. Why is an open question, but that’s a fact. A darker America is not proving to be a more anarchic America. And if you control for socio-economic status, how much of the white-black “ally threat” disappears?

      The reality is that my daughters will live in cities—and those cities will be mixed race—and people will mostly get along with one another without race being the Melville-like “white whale” obsession that it has been for previous generations of Americans.

      Things are getting better on the race front. The Los Angelization of America and the world proceeds apace. The broken wheel screeches the loudest. Derbyshire’s concerns—a Brit living in Britain, no less!—are archaic, the product of a generation for which race was an obsession. And this makes his piece all the more silly.

      How our connectomes build up neurons around the specific tools we become habituated to is more decisive to who we are (and become) than our skin color—don’t you agree?

      If so, then what’s the problem? Change your tools, change your life. Add tools, add powers. We’re all like smart phones with different aps.

      Check out this link for reflection on the curious interactions between the brain and the tools it uses:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/technological-extensions-r-us-martin-heidegger-and-marshall-mcluhan-were-right/

      See also Einstein’s argument that education is collecting intellectual tools—teaching students how to think:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/a-great-albert-einstein-quote-on-critical-thinking-and-being-a-cyborg/

      —Santi

  4. Paradigm says:

    First off, the crime rate may be similar to that of the 1950s. But given that the population is much older and emergency care much more advanced that isn’t necessarily a sign that people are any less violent. Fewer people are capable of violence and many injuries that were fatal and recorded as murder now become assault. Also, America may be getting darker, but according to the census projections it is not getting blacker.

    And now to the main point. Sure men are more dangerous than women, teenagers more so than adults etc. I wouldn’t choose the alley with teenage boys instead of the one with old ladies either. Would you? And I’m sure a lot of the differences will vanish when adjusted for socio-economic status. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about disregarding information that is relevant to personal safety. You seem reluctant to answer my questions about that. If you flip the coin you obviously take a risk, and if you choose the white alley, race will continue to be an issue.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Alcohol is also an issue: are people drunk in the alley or high? There are lots of factors that go into why people behave badly.

      Are you positing a primarily genetic theory—that blacks are genetically more prone to violence than whites—that they have more testosterone?

      What is it, exactly, that you are positing?

      And what about your own race? If you posit that you’re black (and not white), then which alley do you go down most comfortably?

      Would you want to be a gay black male, for example, passing a group of white teenagers?

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        Alcohol is also an issue just like race, gender and age. No argument there. As for your other questions,

        I’m white and would choose the white alley. If I was black I would do the same, gay or otherwise. This because of the crime stats which all the information I have.

        I’m not positing any particular theory regarding the nature of black people. There could be a biological difference but it could also be mainly a matter of culture. What I am saying is that I find it odd that you assume Derbyshire is a racist when he tells his kids to stay away from black people. Especially since you still haven’t answered my question if you, walking home late at night, would flip a coin in deciding between the alley with the black and the alley with the white guys – and advice your daughters to do the same.

        I’m positing that it’s not racism to avoid black people you have no special information about. Just like being aware of the fact that men, teenagers and drunk people are more violent than others and acting on that information is not sexist or otherwise prejudiced.

        And as a corollary, I’m positing that race relations can’t possibly improve the way you assume given that most people will act on this information.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Paradigm,

        You’re posing the question you want me to answer in a way that is complicated for me. I’ve been on the mean streets in downtown Los Angeles late at night where people carry baseball bats along the sidewalk; I used to work at 102nd St. right in the middle of Watts. I remember picking my uncle up late one night at the bus station in the worst part of the city, and he was out on the corner bullshitting with the alcoholics and homeless people while waiting on me, his suitcase at his side. Risky? Yes. Got ripped off? No. Got assaulted? No. People smell fear. And there are advantages to being male. And people in desperate straights are often addicted and not well enough to fight too hard.

        The race of the person making the decision should generally determine the choice of your dilemma. It’s not obvious to me that the white side is the right choice. I don’t think a black person would be as glib about going through the white group as you imagine (controlling for socio-economic status). You add a level of risk to any situation if you are perceived as the odd person out, especially when people are partying and collectively eyeballing you.

        I grew up with black friends and played on the basketball team in high school. I made good friends. Drunk people worry me, white or black. It only takes one in a group to get obnoxious, then crowd effects start to kick in.

        —Santi

  5. mhasegawa says:

    This was a great post. Thank you for taking the time write it and to engage about race.

    If anyone believes that racism is dead or harmless they should read the stories on the tweets sent after the Boston Bruins hockey team lost after a goal scored by a black hockey player. Yes, it is very true they can from only a few fans, but it is the fact that it is so close to the surface that is scary. I don’t know if you call this institutional racisam or not, but it is a sad fact of what is today.

    About the alley: I am Asian American and when I was in college walked down an alley and was almost raped by a white man. He stabbed by friend, also white male, and only ran off after he couldn’t get my jeans off.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I hadn’t heard about the Boston Bruins incident. Thanks for sharing that. And your anecdote is quite shocking. Men of all races can be scary and bestial, can’t they?

      Racism is a hard topic to write and talk about. I find myself extremely uncomfortable trying to do so, but I think it’s important to try to generate honest dialogue about it.

      —Santi

  6. Trayvon says:

    Hi Santi,
    Thanks for your post on race, a topic we should all speak more about. The Social Darwinism/Libertarian argument ignores what people actually experience and highlights theoretical arguments that have never been proven. The most blatant omission of reality is that we live in a world of historical inequalities. Even Milton Friedman expressed three market failures — externalities, monopolies, and historical inequalities (though conveniently he doesn’t elaborate on how to rectify the last problem). In a country where equal rights under the law are less than 50 years old we would be foolish to ignore historical inequities such as the FHA discrimination that channeled homeownership and great wealth to generations of whites while denying that to blacks.
    The argument also ignores institutional racism that still exists and effects people in real ways. The white/black disparity between those who received insurance money and those who didn’t after Katrina is a perfect example. Another would be the fact that non-blacks commit drug offenses at a higher rate but blacks are charged, convicted and imprisoned at much higher rates. Off the top of my head something like 1 in 10 black males in the US has spent time in prison—most for minor drug infractions for which white people are less likely to be put in jail for. Being a felon has profound impacts on the future of your employment and education, and recursively on whole communities.
    I think that when we focus on race we lose the important connections between the people who are on the short end of the stick with regard to historical power discrepancies. The poor, working class, and middle class of all races should be working toward a more equitable future for all Americans. Only then would we be able to put our mental tools to the test and become a true meritocracy that the social darwinists envision. The obvious result of that would be a glorious rainbow nation. Maybe we’ll get there someday with more conversations like this.

    p.s. – I would love to see more people talking to their children about white privilege — something most people never even realize they have. Peggy mcintosh has a thought-provoking article about this http://www.uakron.edu/dotAsset/1662103.pdf

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Trayvon,

      I certainly agree with everything you said. A country like Vietnam is an example. If you looked at the extraordinary poverty of the country, and dropped the historical context for that poverty, you could not understand the poverty by simply looking at its outward ethnic makeup or present cultural practices.

      Human beings, whatever else they are, are adaptive creatures. Our uniqueness is in exploiting the moment with flexibility (coming up with a tool for solving a problem, specializing in a skill, taking on a new habit, thriving in a strange environment). The opportunities that contingent circumstances present to an individual human being, and how he or she exploits them, is what an individual’s history is. There is always a train leaving the station, and another one coming. How will you catch it (or decide not to)?

      On a personal level, historical contingencies have made enormous differences in my own life. At one point, for example, my dad nearly moved with me to Chicago instead of staying in Southern California. How that might have changed me as a person is impossible to know.

      With regard to black culture in the United States, the doors slammed shut by white racism in the private sector and those opened by government employment opportunities has meant that a lot of blacks have entered the employ of the government (the military, the postal service, schools, etc.). African Americans, in other words, have attempted to exploit the opportunities presented to them, as does any other group of individuals. Certain habits of mind and behavior set in with any specialized activity.

      In my case, my being a teacher has, over time, set up certain habits of mind and behavior (both healthy and unhealthy). It’s true of everybody. Choose your career and habits carefully.

      I think of Dante’s Inferno. Your habits and what you specialize in become your destiny—your “habitation.”

      A lot of people are making the digital world their habitation. I wonder how that’s changing people, and how race is perceived when we’re all exploiting the habitat of the internet and becoming cyborgs.

      —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        So “blah blah blah” let’s turn this into an attack on the neo-liberals. Look at Vietnam? One day we’ll be cyborgs and race won’t matter. Yadda yadda yadda. For those of us living in the real world I wonder how applicable all this crap about REALLY REALLY wanting to believe that all people are equal is… Oh that’s right, it isn’t because it isn’t compatible with reality (aka it’s not true). Decry those who think otherwise as insensitive or even bigoted, but science is a bitch and sociology and history are subjective and will never trump the harder sciences of biology and math, And if we do one day become cyborgs, I guarantee you that technology will be invented by either a caucasian or asian person.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Andrew,

        A hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have brought Asians into the equation at all. In other words, Asian people looked to be faring poorly in relation to the West. A lot of people simply took it for granted that whites were “superior” to Asians. But now that Asia is rising economically, you include them. But this is a historically contingent response that illustrates your rush to judgment. You have a very narrow sense of historical time.

        My argument is that all human beings are tool-using animals evolutionarily designed for rapid specialization. No human ever drove a car 1000 years ago, but we all quickly pick up the skill when exposed.

        I recommend Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” as a better explanation of contemporary racial disparities than yours.

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        I’ve read the book. It’s crap that seeks to present a convenient narrative for a particular ideological view (which is all most history his). Also 100 years ago I wasn’t born. Oh wait that’s right, you’re not responding to me, you’re treating me as a representative for some straw man position that you associate with whomever disagrees with you. Grow the hell up and step outside of your ivory tower once in a while. Maybe just enough to not be so damn condescending. That bullshit doesn’t work on me.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I’m not trying to deny evolution or the range of human variation. I’m simply arguing that, as tool using animals designed to specialize and exploit contingent historical circumstances, blacks and whites are exactly the same. But black historical experience is different from white historical experience, and so different niches have been historically exploited.

        Asian historical experience has also been different, and different niches have been exploited.

        The general capability to fill niches is the same in all human groups. It’s one of the things that makes us human (and can give us hope about the human future).

        Your assertion that the next Einstein (for example) will not come from the black race is ignorant for one big reason: CONVERGENT EVOLUTION. Even if there was a gene—or cluster of genes—for, say, mathematical intelligence found to be common among elite white mathematicians, and not present in much of the general population, white or black, it is still possible that CONVERGENT EVOLUTION would have selected for other genes to do mathematical calculations as well (as bat wings and bird wings both exploit flight). You would be foolish indeed to conclude that bats should not be able to fly because they do not share the same genes for flight as birds. You never know where the winning numbers will turn up on the next spin of the wheel. History is contingent. You cannot know in advance what will prove decisive.

        As one Nobel Prize winner said of sperm banks, “They should ask my dad for his sperm, not mine.”

        You can’t, therefore, “guarantee” anything of the sort that you claim.

        Barack Obama is an example of contingency. His very name and mixed race ancestry might have made it seem inconceivable, fifty years ago, that he could ever rise to the American presidency. But he did. You don’t know what combination of genes will “unlock” what environment for the next round of exploitation. As we speak, new children—new combinations—are being conceived. Every person who is alive today was born of parents that SURVIVED long enough to reproduce (and so had some successful evolutionary strategy). That strategy may contain the seeds for failure or success in the next round as well, but, in humans, the ability to ADJUST is one of the strongest selective pressures of all.

        Nobody comes from reproductive losers, and the next round of play is open.

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        You are appealing to evolution while denying natural selection. If a trait already exists within a certain portion of the population but not another, and it is advantageous to have said trait, then saying, “Well that trait might arise in this other group as well” ignores the rate of the accumulation of genetic variations with the rate of selection. The emergence of new traits takes generations, the selection for existing traits occurs much more rapidly.

        Rape is a viable strategy in the wild for reproduction. Having more kids to collect a larger welfare check is a valid strategy for reproduction. Of course if society punished rapists and allows women to have abortions, or stops providing support for people to just pop out more kids, then those strategies will not be so successful. That you refuse to recognize that the way in which we order society impacts which traits reproduce at higher frequency, and fail to judge the welfare leach as a genetic parasite in the same way that I judge the rapist, does not make you more noble or humane. It is a folly to believe that all people are created equal when we now know that people were not created, but rather emerged by selective processes. You’re world view is outdated, there’s really nothing more to be said.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I agree that society sets up certain evolutionary pressures and that, over time, it can change gene expression rates. My argument is that, if there is selective pressure for mathematicians in the world, both the average black and the average white may, by chance, have genes “at the ready” to exploit the opportunity in their next round of offspring. Indeed, it may be that just the right expression for a math genius may come from, say, an interracial marriage of two people who are totally oblivious of the potential they have inside them, but only if they come TOGETHER. It just depends where the pressures are coming from and the roll of the dice. There may be many genes ready to converge on a particular scenario (if pressured to do so), and those genes may be spread throughout the human population. The key is to make love a lot; try combinations. One cluster of mathematical geniuses from a particular family, for example, means that their very existence will put pressure on other populations to keep up, and those populations keeping up will tap different genes for CONVERGENT EVOLUTION.

        We shouldn’t think of a present advantage, therefore, as a static trait inherent in one family or race but not in another, but as simply provoking another round of evolution.

        The evolutionary advantage associated with skin color (black is good if you live in sunny tropics; white if you live North and need more Vitamin D) is now marginal compared with the new evolutionary pressures on temperament and intelligence. All contemporary humans, regardless of race, are being evolutionarily pressured toward certain temperaments and certain kinds of intelligence. These pressures are leading to convergences. Racism tries to set in stone “types” and “stereotypes” that have always been in flux and subject to convergent evolution. You have an outmoded view of the nature of race and evolution. Your view only works if you believe that: (1) evolution is not active at every moment; (2) evolution does not have convergent powers for different genes to reach similar results; and (3) evolution has not put extraordinary pressure on all humans, whatever their color, to be flexible, capable of multiple forms of tool use, and exploitative of niches that suddenly open up.

        —Santi

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