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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Race Plague

 La Raza Zaraza

"Declaration of Independence" - This...
Image via Wikipedia

In the Spanish language the term "la raza" translates into English as "the race".

In the Polish language the word "zaraza" translates into English as "plague".

Allow me to preface my post proper with a meta post. I will dispense with a meta meta-post, which would have amounted to stating that: given the choice between being misunderstood or not, I much prefer the latter.


In what follows I conjecture something about a complex, controversial and emotion-laced aspect of human relations. I make no claims about the veracity of my conjecture, for it amounts to my personal opinions about an idea that emerged as a gut feeling. I put it out there for what it is and for what it might possibly evolve into (if you'll excuse the prepositional terminus). Moreover, I haven't the foggiest notion how to address the subject notion, or even if it is at all addressable. Nevertheless, I think it may be worth investigating whether or not it is.

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people ...". So begins the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The quoted fragment established, in writing, a guiding principle, albeit highly idealistic and far removed from reality, for the fledgling confederation of British colonies: the so-called "one people" of the colonies are to be thought of and governed as an undifferentiated group. Of course, as anyone having just a passing familiarity with American history is aware, it only requires the mention of its most egregious counter example, slavery, to understand just how high was that pie in the sky.

From its very beginning, our Nation's intent (in principal, though not explicitly defined) has been that the people of what was to become the United States of America are "one". In its most liberal interpretation, that oneness stems from equal treatment under the law for every person, irrespective of race, color or creed, which continues to be the intent of our social contract. The only problem with the concept, however, is that this square-peg philosophy doesn't fit well in the round-hole of human relations. Racial and other prejudices have plagued humanity throughout recorded history.

Despite enormous progress — from our crude beginnings (with slavery as the norm), on through the devastation of Civil War and continuing racial strife during Reconstruction, additional enmity with every wave of ethnic immigration, the chaotic days of the Civil Rights Movement, up to today's bitter polarization between our two sociopolitical worldviews — humans continue to be obsessed by their perceived differences, much more so than by their ties that bind. Perhaps this is so because perceptual acuity is fundamentally based on the ability to differentiate.

And the obsessive clannishness of humanity is, seemingly, independent of clan size, too. Witness: today's clash of civilizations; religion-based warfare; war between nations; civil war; regional strife; inter-city rivalry, especially in professional sports; intramural rivalry; family feuds; fratricide (the first homicide); and, finally, suicidal homicide, as a perversion for some greater good. Just for the sake of a contemporary example of clannish hatred, consider the recent killing of a San Francisco Giants fan by a gang of LA Dodgers fans. Apparently, we can't all just get along. Humanity is afflicted by a prejudicial pestilence, la raza zaraza.

I submit that before we can do anything about the race plague, we must learn more about the nature of the epidemic. In particular, we must determine if it is a plague-like problem for which a solution exists.

Postface (July 19, 2011)

In my current re-reading of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, I came across the following passage in Chapter 51, soon after I published this post:
Lee went on, "that's why I include myself. We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It's a breed — selected out by accident. And so we're overbrave and overfearful — we're kind and cruel as children. We're overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We're oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic — and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That's what we are, Cal — all of us. You aren't very different."
This passage speaks to me ...

Post 1,680 The Race Plague

1 comment:

  1. Mon Ami, I think you are correct.

    In my experience with that grand pattern recognition engine that sits between our ears, the point of much that goes on in there is "discrimination". We discriminate between the odors of foul and good food, the soothing sound of Mama's voice and The Other, and in a crowded railroad station we discriminate the acoustic pattern of our own name buried in a sea of noise.

    In fact, even Genesis remarks on discrimination. The first task God gave Adam was naming the animals, which is a task of categorization, requiring discrimination.

    A few years ago, after the publication of "The Bell Curve", anthropologists and apologists argued strongly that race does not exist. And I do see that point at a genetic level. But everybody knows that races do exist. To establish this, one need do no more than carefully measure the anthropometric dimensions and the albedo, if you will, of ten thousand randomly selected people from, say, the streets of Manhattan and perform a linear discriminant analysis on the data. I predict that such an effort would yield, more or less, the same race classifications our brain sees.

    As I see it :-), the problem with race is not its perceptibility. Outlawing "discrimination" is like outlawing vision, or memory - not going to happen. It's necessary for survival. Hardwired.

    No, the problem with race, as I see it, is the seemingly universal cultural need for scapegoats. In effect, scapegoats serve to reconcile "sin", and, more importantly, the consequences (poverty, shortages, etc.) of "sin", in every culture. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, acapegoats cannot be other human beings (at least theoretically, if not always in practice). Therefore, if other human beings are chosen as scapegoats they must be demoted to animals or otherwise be shown to "deserve" their treatment. Once that is done, it matters much less what one does with them. They no longer have dignity.

    Having a different color skin or a differently shaped eye serves the perceptual discrimination processes and helps identify scapegoats. If it's a more subtle discrimination, one might require the wearing of armbands, or distinctive patches.

    I'm actually not very optimistic about finding a solution, mainly because I'm not optimistic that a need for scapegoats is going away. The particular feature set that identifies members of the scapegoated category may Change, but I don´t consider that to be cause for Hope.