A History of the Race Idea

It is my belief that understanding should precede judgment. With this in mind, let’s attempt to reconstruct the history of race and expand understanding that we might better judge what ought to be done.

Part One: Race, As Understood by Most Ancient People

In many ancient texts you will find references to “races of men.” Ancient Persians under Darius the Great (and probably other Persian kings as well), paraded “various races of men” through their cities in vast military parades as a proof of power. Hannibal Barca gained renown partly because he “held together mercenaries of many races.” Likewise, Julius Caesar in his “Commentaries on the Gallic Wars” often mentions Gallic, Celtic and Germanic races. In the Old Testament of the Bible, we are warned against “mixing iron and clay” with regard to believers contaminating themselves with the blood of Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites and dozens of other minor races. In both the Confucius canon and Han Fei-tzu, two of the most influential bodies of work in Chinese political history, we find reference to barbaric and civilized races, with the latter being infinitely preferable. Similar ideas appear in Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Korean, Japanese and Mongol texts.

With a few exceptions, when the ancients speak of races they are not referencing the stuff people in the 21st century think of. Rather than skin color or DNA, almost all of the ancient writers’ “races” are better understood as cultural spheres like the modern Sinosphere, the Anglosphere or the Arabic Linguistic Sphere. In the cases of ancient writers from smaller, weaker civilizations – the ancient Israelites for example – “races” are often mere kinship groups.

“Superior” and “inferior” races of men mentioned in these ancient texts were thus not decided by skin color or facial features but rather by membership in “superior” or “inferior” cultural/linguistic/religious groups. Barbarians thus could and frequently did “change races” by abandoning their old ways and embracing a Roman/Chinese/Persian lifestyle. As such, when Julius Caesar made reference to the Gallic races it was similar in content and intention to a modern Spaniard referencing French speakers or describing a person as coming from the Middle East. It is for this reason that nobody batted an eye when the Mongol Khans married women from China, Persia, Poland and Korea. It is because of the ancient notions of race as cultural rather than biological that group conflict so often ended in massacres followed by quick assimilation.

There are, however, three important exceptions that presaged the future of race: the Buddhist/Hindu tradition, the Chinese after the An Lushan Rebellion and the pre-Macedonian Greeks.

Part Two: The Proto-Racists

Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and in many cases shares with it the proto-racist idea that certain classes of people are inherently unclean regardless of cultural, linguistic or religious affiliation. This is most famously manifest in the Indian caste system but is also apparent in Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Buddhist Book of the Dead). According to the logic of these systems, members of the lower classes are inherently bad because their births into the lower classes are karmic punishment for sinful past lives. As such, they are unclean from the moment they are born. This is distinct from the Roman or Confucian ideas of “races of men” in that the “inferior” people were inferior by birth and their actions could never remove the stain of inferiority regardless of what they did. This is proto-racist rather than fully racist because the “inferior” people were members of the same ethnic groups as the “superior” people.

Next, the Chinese invented important parts of modern racism in the aftermath of the An Lushan Rebellion. Western readers generally know little about the Asian, African and Amerindian cultures they so deeply respect, so it is necessary to dive into a short history lesson at this point. At the height of the Tang Dynasty, near the end of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign (712-756 A.D.), a probably senile Turkic-Chinese general called An Lushan was forced to rebel. He decided to go all in and declared himself emperor of China. In the eight following years, around 30 million people – 60 percent of the registered Chinese population – died.

In the midst of this unimaginable horror, the traumatized Chinese invented the idea that people from outside ethnic groups were irredeemably bad and inferior. Tibetans (who had almost nothing to do with the rebellion), Turks and northern barbarians were from this point on considered a pollution to China regardless of their behavior, beliefs or cultural assimilation. The ethnic naughty list later expanded to include almost all non-Han Chinese. This was a major turning point from earlier dynasties, and even the earlier Tang, which would almost always pursue a policy of assimilation with regard to barbarians and outsiders. Taizhong of Tang (626-649), for example, ran his empire as a virtual foreign religion sampler buffet. Such things became unimaginable after the An Lushan Rebellion.

Chinese proto-racism is distinguished from modern racism in that the Chinese made only one distinction, superior Han Chinese and inferior literally-everyone-else, and in the fact that they based their ideas on cultural and philosophical principles rather than scientific inquiry.

Finally, the pre-Macedonian Greeks were pioneers of modern biology and, like pretty much all biologists pre-1945, advocates of scientific racial hierarchies. Aristotle was the most famous of these Greek proto-racists, but he was far from alone. The Greeks, as the first quasi modern scientists in the West, developed a wide array of biological theories tied to latitude and psychology. In particular, they espoused an idea that peoples north of Greece possessed passion but no rationality, while the peoples south of Greece possessed rationality but no passion. The superiority of the Greeks therefore lies in their biological unification of reason and passion. This is separated from modern racism in that Greek proto-racists would not consider a blonde Scythian any less or more inferior than an Ethiopian or Persian. Proto-scientific, proto-racism prospered in Greece from the 6th to 4th century B.C. and was not overcome until Alexander the Great – much more politician than scientist – overthrew the biologists and declared that any valiant man, whether from India or Egypt or Athens, was a Greek in his eyes.

Part Three: How “Bad Slaves” Necessitated the Invention of Modern Race

Slavery, in almost all ancient societies, was usually the consequence of losing a war or being the descendant of someone who lost a war. Less common but still typical was the practice of selling oneself or one’s family members into slavery in order to alleviate poverty. In the context of ancient Egypt, the Maya or a Maori tribe, this posed no trouble at all. You go to war, you kill a bunch of people and you take the survivors as slaves. Failing that, you find a neighbor who is struggling and you offer to buy his son to work in your mines or you buy his daughter as a concubine. Either way was perfectly satisfactory and you had very little reason to prefer one nation’s slaves to any other nation’s slaves. Scythian, Syrian, Jewish, Ethiopian, it didn’t matter. A slave was judged by his physical prowess, her skills, or his attractiveness rather than by origin.

The discovery of the New World changed this. The European explorers found that Amerindians were the first people in recorded history who made bad slaves. Every time they conquered a tribe, half of them would drop dead from plagues. Put them to work anyway and the fatality rates were so high as to make slavery completely uneconomical. This was, of course, due to the fact that Amerindians had no immunity to the diseases Africans, Europeans and Asians had been sharing for the last 10,000 years, but the settlers had no way of knowing this.

The next most convenient sources of slave labor was impoverished Europeans and, in the colder parts of North and South America, indentured servants were wildly popular. However, impoverished Europeans had a bad habit of dying in vast plagues whenever you set them to work in the tropics. This was, of course, due to the fact that Europeans had no immunity to tropical diseases like malaria, but the slave owners had no way of knowing this either.

The third most convenient source of slaves was to tap into the ancient and thriving West African slave trade. The West African kingdoms of the Slave Coast – modern Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and parts of Nigeria – had been running unique, slave-hunting economies since at least the 13th century in order to service both booming domestic slave systems and the Arab slave trade. There is even some evidence that kingdoms in these areas had been capturing and exporting slaves into North Africa and the Mediterranean as far back as the Roman Empire.

With slave hunting civilizations already present, a well-organized African infrastructure and enthusiastic trade partners in Ashante and Dahomey, the European conquerors of the new world had ample opportunity to experiment with African slaves. They soon discovered that West African victims made far better slaves than either Amerindians or Europeans. We now know that this is because West Africans share Eurasian diseases with Asians and Europeans but also share tropical diseases with tropical Amerindians. Of course the slave owners couldn’t have known that.

In the scramble to explain the vastly higher survival of West African slaves compared to Amerindians or Europeans, a quasi-modern idea of race developed. Since the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe were dominated by attempts to reconcile religion and classical philosophy along with a renewed interest in science, it is not surprising that reformed religion and renewed science formed the basis for explaining the world’s first sets of good and bad slaves.

From the standpoint of reformed religion, many Europeans proposed the idea that black people and perhaps Africans in general were the Biblical descendants of Ham and thus sentenced by God to servitude. This idea was confounded by the conspicuously grand and ancient cultural achievements of Egypt, Ethiopia and Tunisia and thus the boundaries of the “race” of Ham contracted ever more tightly around the people of Subsaharan West Africa.

From the standpoint of scientific revival, racial thinkers like Arthur de Gabineau proposed theories of heredity. These initially sought to explain why aristocrats had the right to dominate commoners – they had direct descent from an ancient master race (and Odin!) in de Gabineau’s analysis – but this soon grew into elaborate racial hierarchies. Central to all the ideas was the concept, still present in modern biology and psychology, that intelligence was mostly inherited from one’s ancestors. Distinct from modern biology and psychology, however, was the idea that civilization became powerful in 18th century Europe but not in 18th century Congo because of inborn intellectual differences on the level of large, “racial” populations.

In summary, the need to explain why Africans made better slaves than Amerindians or Europeans created the first recognizably modern system of racism. That is, whether through the scientific mythology of master races or the “sons of Ham,” it was for the first time common to divide slave and master, high and low, based entirely on the color of one’s skin and the features of one’s face. As a consequence of this, the phenomenon of good and bad slaves created the world’s first durable racial categories, the first systems to combine Greek scientific proto-racism, Hindu-Buddhist born inferiority ideas and Chinese master races into one coherent system.

Part Four: Scientific Racism – Darwin and the Romantics

The discovery of evolution by Charles Darwin and the rise of romanticism during the 19th century turbocharged the progress of scientific racism and made the grand racial conflicts of the second World War more or less inevitable. This happened through two basic channels: a) Darwinism and social Darwinism in particular made scientific racism almost universal for educated people and b) romanticism made “surrender” to the scientifically prescribed and inevitable course of history seem both morally good and artistically pleasing.

Let’s start with Darwinism. Darwin’s discovery of evolution discredited the older, religious opponents to racists like Arthur de Gabineau. When de Gabineau proposed a master race in, he had no hard theoretical footing to stand upon and thus groups like the Jesuits were able to refute him by pointing at the New Testament and its numerous references to equality before God.

However, with the discovery of the principle of descent with modification, racism gained an entirely new scientific foundation from which to combat non-scientific ideas like equality, human rights, democracy and Greco-Roman notions of freedom. A modern reader can find ample evidence of this “battle against superstition” in P. Charles’ Michel’s “A Biological View of English Foreign Policy,” A. Carthill’s “Lost Dominion,” Adolf Hitler’s “The Nazi Primer,” the Khmer Rouge’s “Revolutionary Flag Magazine” or “Vicious Spies and Killers Under the Mask of Academic Physicians” by Stalin’s puppet newspaper Pravda.

As a consequence of this biological work and a mistaken sense that science and ethics mix, it was difficult to find an educated person who was not racist, whether white, East Asian or Indian, between about 1880 and 1940. Reading contemporary articles and books gives the very strong sense that a person in 1930 who did not at least engage with the idea of scientific racism was very much like a flat earther today – weird, eccentric, a science denier. In particular, IQ tests and phrenology were used to make scientific racism respectable and almost irresistible.

This scientific racism only began to teeter because the scientific racism of the Nazis, Soviets and Japanese imperialists in WW2 had so graphically illustrated the need to maintain non-scientific “superstitions” like human rights, Christian equality and Greco-Roman notions of freedom. The conquest of scientists by politicians and ethicists after WW2, just like Alexander’s rejection of Greek proto-science 2300 years earlier, made cosmopolitan egalitarianism possible.

Also instrumental in making race cancerous in the 19th and 20th centuries were the romantics. Represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Martin Heidegger and Napoleon Bonaparte, romantic thinking sought to downplay rationality and embrace one’s “true self.” This dovetailed with scientific racism in that it took the dry, biological “type” and imbued it with sacred meaning, calling on members of races to embody their true blood essences. Romanticism was important in the aesthetic justification of racial dictatorships and war glorification, promising the frustrated and suffering people of Europe in general and Germany in particular a chance to exude a glorious and unchangeable racial superiority. Romanticism, in other words, offered to make each individual racist a Hindu Brahman – that is a person who is inherently and automatically superior to anyone born in a lower caste/race – but on a global scale. Such offers were popular.

Part Five: How the History of Race Built Up to The Civil Rights Movement and the Floyd Protests

Race got nastier with each step in its progression. The ancient “races of men” were relatively innocent and even the proto-racism was flimsy enough to be tossed aside without any necessary tumult. It was only in the new world with its “bad slaves” and scientific progress that we got to the truly toxic racial discussions plaguing us now.

I need to emphasize, however, that it was “bad slaves” and biologists much more than normal slavery that caused this shift. Regular slavery, contrary to prevailing narratives, is not the reason race relations in the United States and South America are almost unfixable. Korea, for example, had slaves from at least the Gojoseon period (approximately 2,000 years ago) until 1930. Two millennia of bondage ended and the social consequences were almost nothing. Slaves simply became impractical, industrialization became inevitable and the system went away. Similar instances of nearly-no-consequence slavery happened in China, in the Roman Empire, in North Africa, in Turkey and all across the Mongol Empire. Slavery can, and usually does, just sort of go away when people find a more profitable alternative.

However, this was not the case in the Americas. In the Americas, there have been no smooth transitions out of slavery because of an incredibly viscous cycle described by Alexis DeTocqueville in his “Democracy in America.” Basically, the descendants of the slaves are screwed everywhere from Brazil to Haiti to Georgia because of the invention of race, the invention of equality and the invention of capitalism. Let me explain.

Before the invention of modern race by the confused New World slave holders in the 16th and 17th centuries, there had never been a group of people who made dependably “better slaves” than any other. As such, there was no reason for “sons of Ham” or durable racial categories like in de Gabineau. The invention of durable categories meant that African slaves had very little opportunity to join mainstream society.

Next, the popularization of modern equality ideas in the 18th century fell heavily on the enslaved people. Before the invention of equality, slave manumission was very common and the masters of such slaves could and did expect thanks for releasing said slaves. Since the slave did not expect equality or human rights, he or she would almost always simply be thankful for manumission and move on with life, something DeTocqueville describes from his experiences in France. After the invention of equality, this system broke down. Now that all men were held to be equal, the masters became fearful. They became fearful because if all men were equal, that meant that slavery was against nature/law/etc. If it was against nature/law/etc, then the slaves were justified in taking revenge. If the slaves were justified in taking revenge, then you ended up with situations like the Haitian Revolution, where freed slaves killed all the whites. (Haitians then created their own racial hierarchy with “mulatrists” on top and former slaves on bottom.)

In order to protect themselves from the threat of equality, the slave masters worked to destroy and undermine the cultural fabric of their slaves as much as possible. In contrast with the 18th century, American slaves in the 19th century were almost universally prevented from reading, forming families, conducting business, adjudicating their own crimes or in any other respect acting in recognizably human ways. Slavery became much harsher. Manumission was legally restricted or abolished, laws were passed to prevent slaves learning to read, write or master crafts and the intentional destruction of slave families through slave sales or slave trades greatly intensified. Doing so eliminated the threatened equality and revenge. After all, a person who cannot even participate in a family has little claim to equality with his or her master. This made slavery much more degrading than it had been before the invention of equality, but the destruction of slave culture did result in a temporary stability.

Then capitalism introduced a great deal of instability into the harsh but stable slave systems of the early 19th century. Since capitalism is both vastly more efficient than slave economies and requires the free flow of labor, the slave owners faced a dilemma. They couldn’t free their slaves because of the looming threats of equality and revenge, but they also couldn’t keep their slaves because capitalism was making their traditional way of life economically impractical.

This culminated in the US Civil War and a series of messy emancipations across South America. In most cases, the freed slaves faced a similar disaster. They could not function independently because the former masters, fearing equality and revenge, had removed from their slaves almost anything that could pass as cultural tradition. They also could not integrate into mainstream society. At first integration was impossible because they were “sons of Ham” or later, and to a much more toxic degree, because they were subject to the theories of the biologists. Finally, because they had very limited traditions or independent social structure, their communities were plagued by crime, unemployment and broken families.

With that in place, DeTocqueville’s cycle became manifest:
1. White Americans excluded freed slaves and the descendants of freed slaves from their communities.
2. Cut off from mainstream society and stripped of their own cultural toolkits, the freed slaves and the descendants of freed slaves suffered with high crime rates, unemployment and broken families.
3. Fearful of the high crime rates, unemployment and broken families, white families retreated farther from the descendants of the freed slaves.
4. Further cut off from mainstream society, the descendants of freed slaves fell further into high crime rates, unemployment and broken families.
5. Rinse, wash, repeat.

And almost nothing about that has changed in the 190 years since DeTocqueville made his predictions. Redlining, Jim Crow and white flight are merely different names for step one. African American crime rates and rates of crime victimization are much higher than the population at large, unemployment is consistently higher and the number of broken African American families dwarfs the population at large – which is just step two set on repeat. White families responded to this by fighting anti-segregation busing policies, supporting the “tough on crime” school to prison pipeline and educational gerrymandering, which is exactly what DeTocqueville described in step three. African American communities made practically no relative gains in relative crime rates, unemployment or family stability, which is step four.

There is little reason to believe the George Floyd protests are going to change this. This is for the simple reason that they are a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, for all its symbolic power and cultural impact, did very little to improve the more concrete problems of money, power and status for African Americans. The relative wages of African Americans and everyone else are almost exactly the same as they were in the 1950’s. The relative crime rates have hardly budged and the problems with family stability have gotten worse. As the wildly talented author Paul Beatty writes in his disappointing fourth novel, “is it my fault that the only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be? No, it isn’t.”

The effort to defund the police/de-militarize the police, which I largely support, probably isn’t doing anything to break the cycle either. It’s a great idea for improving community and police relations, it will probably make corruption more inconvenient for the average officer and it might even reduce the very common tendency for cities to use their police departments to “farm” the poor, but it’s probably irrelevant to the race question. It’s irrelevant because of the spike in violent crime that we’re already seeing in many American cities as the police retreat from struggling neighborhoods. The cops are going to return eventually and when they do, African Americans are probably going to be arrested at high rates. The police badly need reform, but they are not the reason DeTocqueville’s wheel continues to turn. (The courts and prisons are another story.)

“Woke” white liberals aren’t much reason for hope either. They tend to have benefited from white flight and there’s not much reason to think they want to change it. (If you look at a map of the United States, it’s uncanny how often white people in very white states have liberal racial views while white people in diverse states have more conservative views.) Data shows that they are highly supportive of the symbolic, Civil Rights Movement type stuff but don’t have as much appetite for reparations, busing students from good neighborhoods into bad neighborhoods and they generally live in very segregated areas. (To be fair to woke white people, African Americans also prefer segregated residences.) The desired outcome seems eerily similar to the stated goals of “separate but equal” in Plessy vs Furgeson.

This is all rational and defensible, unfortunately. Reparations require individual people innocent of practicing slavery and implementing Jim Crow to pay money to individual people who were not enslaved and mostly were not victimized by Jim Crow. Busing and school integration will expose the children of those white liberals to radically more dangerous and lower achieving schools in struggling neighborhoods. Residential integration risks diluting African American communities; in Perry Bacon Jr and Meridith Conroy’s words, “Black Democrats living in heavily Black areas may want some of the positive attributes of heavily white neighborhoods (like grocery stores and other amenities) but may not necessarily want to move to whiter neighborhoods themselves — or have more white people move to their neighborhoods and change the character of the area.” Breaking DeTocqueville’s cycle is incredibly difficult and, it seems, surprisingly few people want to break it.

As for the protesters themselves, they are almost certainly doing good with regards to police reform and there’s a good chance they crush the police unions. However, as discussed above, this really has nothing to do with the cycle. As for the other commonly reported activities of the protesters, I don’t know how you can get any more symbolically rich and practically empty than arguing with Donald Trump about statues.

Part Six: Two Things We Know Work

Since we can’t depend on justice-focused things like the Civil Rights Movement or the Floyd protests to go beyond rich symbolism and intangible rights, we can’t depend on “woke” white people to sacrifice the safety of their families, we can’t count on anyone to tolerate integration and we can’t depend on police reform to break the DeTocqueville cycle, things seem hopeless. If we value justice/freedom/moral stuff over adjusting people’s incentives, it probably is hopeless.

Luckily, there are two approaches, based on foundations much sturdier and much less dangerous than justice/freedom/moral stuff, that have been shown to work in terms of increasing the money, power and status of people who would otherwise be the victims of “systemic racism.”[1] The first way to break the cycle is immigration/emigration and the second is the formation of interracial families.

Starting with immigrants, we need to understand the power of physically moving your stuff. According to behaviorist research, patterns of behavior are deeply tied to the physical environment. A smoker, for example, almost always smokes in one or two particular physical contexts. The creation of a new context makes the modification of behavior much easier and for this reason rearranging your furniture is an effective step in quitting smoking.

As an immigrant myself, and in my interviews with fellow immigrants from Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Ghana and the United States, the context of a new country makes the modification of behavior and thought patterns almost unavoidable. Subjectively, this tends to feel like a fresh beginning or an invitation to reinvent oneself. In the context of racial bias, there are racist people everywhere and I’ve never met any person who wasn’t “biased” but in a new country, or sometimes even in a new state, the biases will be different, they will not be tied to familiar patterns of experience and they will, as a result, tend to roll off the back much more easily than even subtle bias in a home culture. This is part of the reason why, in the US, immigrants from Africa are able to avoid the DeTocqueville cycle while African Americans struggle to do so. It’s probably why the emigrants I’ve interviewed in Korea feel so much happier and so much more free to pursue their own goals.

Another reason immigration is so positive is that it removes the person from a passive, disempowered “hoping for justice” approach to an active, “I chose to be here and I am responsible for my fate” approach. Feeling responsible for one’s own fate, feeling power over one’s own life and over the lives of others, is incredibly healthy for a person’s psychological wellbeing and social status while feeling that you are a victim is dangerous, unhealthy and counterproductive.

Finally, immigrants are better than natives at a lot of important things. Compared to natives of similar economic class, immigrants in pretty much all countries are less criminal, have much better social mobility and their families do better in school. This is because, by definition, an immigrant has the courage, adaptability and intelligence to make a new life in an alien society. Such people, competing against the natives, who just happen to be wherever they were born and haven’t proven anything, tend to win meritocracy contests. They also, in the context of America, almost always “become white.” It’s hard to find statistics on emigrants out of the US and even harder to find information about African Americans who emigrate, but there are certainly a lot of positive anecdotes.

The second thing shown to break the cycle is the formation of interracial families. American people in interracial marriages are, compared with same race minority couples, richer and their kids are advantaged. Like immigrants, people in interracial marriages are, almost by definition, capable of breaking the racial expectations and roles set up by the biologists, the race theorists and the DeTocqueville cycle. They have better feelings towards people unlike themselves. They are, almost always, capable of navigating diverse cultural contexts and learn to communicate within at least two sub cultural languages. They also, almost by definition, have access to two cultural toolkits whenever there is a problem. Practices not common in black neighborhoods in Alabama might appear in the suburbs of Vermont, for example. Even more fundamentally, they make racism inconvenient. It is very inconvenient to hate black people, or even to fear black people, when your sister in law is black. Literally screwing the differences away is without doubt one of the most promising paths toward annihilating race.

Part Seven: Conclusion

The progression of race has been almost entirely for the worse. The “races of men” in ancient sources like Julius Caesar and Han Fe-tzu are relatively innocent. The proto-racists, for all their faults, were still flimsy enough to be cast aside without too much trauma. However, the “bad slaves” racial systems and the scientific racism that followed are some of the most toxic and dangerous things human beings have ever created.

In the New World, the two best methods for undermining and eliminating racial categories are immigration/emigration and interracial marriages. The greatest legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, from this point of view, was probably Loving vs Virginia, a 1967 Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in all states. The greatest weapon against racial identity in the future is probably a robust system of visas, tearing down the border wall and expanded exchange student programs.

In countries lucky enough to avoid durable racial groups – South Korea for example – it’s important to learn from the mistakes racial thinkers and scientific racists made in the New World. Some on the left, in the name of multi-culturalism, and some on the right, in the name of heritage preservation, are working hard to segregate immigrant and mixed children into racial categories in Korea. However, they have generally failed to implement their schemes and a system that emphasizes self-definition and acculturation has, with widespread success, helped most of these children fit into the Korean mainstream. While overt racism is more common here than I remember it being in the US, the lack of scientific racism in the past and the missing history of durable racial categories means it’s nowhere near as toxic. The progress integrating school kids I’ve seen in Korea is heartening to say the least. I hope they continue.

In all countries, I hope we learn from the disastrous romantic philosophies and remind our citizens that what you are on the inside, what you feel is your essence, does not matter. The only thing anyone can ever judge you on is what you do. This concept, this superiority of action over essence, is the single strongest bulwark we possess against the race concept.


[1] I have a feeling almost no one really knows what “systemic racism” is supposed to mean. The formal definitions and explanations I’ve found have been very abstract, very vague or both. For the purposes of this article, I’m interpreting it as “the DeTocqueville cycle as seen through the lens of moral panic and the COVID19 plague in 2020.”

16 comments

  1. Very thought-provoking and informative. I’ve been watching things fall apart in the so-called Land of the Free. As an immigrant from the place that gave Apartheid a name, I’ve found it baffling that a society with so much could spawn so many citizens who appear to be driven almost entirely by fear and greed.

    Also … I’m sure this was a slip of the finger… It’s “vicious”, not “viscous”. Thought you’d like to know.

    1. Hi Belladonna,

      Thanks for reading. While I agree there is a lot of fear and greed, could you expand on the specific manifestations you’re thinking of?

  2. Thanks. This was very interesting.

    On ancient authors, one thing I’ve learned to be leery of is the translation. Many of the common translations of ancient books were done in the 19th century, right when racist ideology was at its peak. It may have influenced how they translated certain words and phrases. (Although maybe you’re using a new translation, or reading the original Latin or Koine.)

    I think there are more mechanisms at work for progress than you cover. I still remember my surprise as a boy when watching TV shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times, being surprised how human the characters were. Of course, those show still showed a segregated world, but it was progress. And the example of Will & Grace shows how powerful TV can be in showing the humanity of other groups.

    I’m also not sure we’d see many interracial marriages if we hadn’t first had interracial work environments and schools. It’s hard to fall in love with someone from another race if you never encounter them. I do think it’s breaking the final barrier though, getting different races to mingle at family events.

    So I don’t see it nearly as hopeless as you do. That’s not to say there still isn’t an enormous amount of work to do.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I agree that the 19th century and all the translations it produced are a wildcard in this whole thing. Part of me wonders if it was race theorists deciding that the ancient Persian word X meant “race” when it really meant something else and part of me wonders if the race theorists didn’t build their edifice upon the older and more innocent concepts of “race.” I suspect its some of both. While I don’t know Latin, I have been reading pre-modern Korean stuff and they do have a “race” concept -민족. It is, however, mostly an idea of a cultural sphere combined with the superior us, inferior everyone else idea from China.

      I’m sorry if I came off as pessimistic, that was not my intention. I am pessimistic about approaches that focus on ideas of justice or human rights because I don’t think either of those things is real. I also don’t think the Civil Rights Movement was that effective in the concrete senses of money/power/status. I also don’t think it deserves as much credit as it gets for integration, though it does deserve some.

      That all said, I am very optimistic that interracial marriage has been exploding in popularity and frequency. I am also very optimistic that this will work because immigrants, regardless of color, tend to do really well in the US. This makes me think that we have mostly gotten rid of scientific racism ideas and that the racism we’re experiencing now is mostly “culturism.” Cultures, unlike skin colors, are negotiable.

      1. On human rights, I agree there’s nothing in nature that implies them. If we meet a lion in the wilderness, it’s not going to care about our human rights.

        I’ve been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He has a number of interesting perspectives (not all of which I agree with). One is his definition of religion, which he sees as a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, which could be some supernatural powers such as deities, but also supposed natural laws, such as human rights.

        In particular, he calls Humanism, with all its variants, a religion. So a belief in natural human rights, makes one a Humanist, although you could be a liberal Humanist, concerned primarily with individual freedoms, a socialist Humanist, concerned with equality, or an evolutionary Humanist, the rejection, based on supposed scientific principles, that we’re not all equal, that some portions of humanities (races) are superior, and need to preserve that superiority.

        This is a view that sees most of us as being in multiple religions (although Harari admits that many prefer the word “ideologies”), which are often in tension with each other.

        Note that “natural laws” shouldn’t be confused with the scientific laws of nature. Natural law often claims to be grounded in science, but it’s usually a misinterpretation of that science.

        Anyway, Harari would probably say we’re not members of the Humanism religion. Myself, I think many human rights are ideas worth promoting, but attempting to ground them in nature is dangerous, because even if accurate, new scientific discoveries could always rip the carpet out from other them.

      2. I think that’s an excellent analysis and I agree that humanism is religious or, at least, an attempt at religion. I’m not sure people are built to live in a nihilistic world and I think religions are (good and necessary) ways to impose a human purpose on nature. I also find the cosmological argument convincing, though I think that’s secondary to what you and I and Harari are talking about.

        My reluctance to depend on humanistic religions, though, is based on the fact that human rights/equality/etc, no matter how much I like them, are still just preferences. In a philosophical sense, I think it’s dangerous to imply to people that they are entitled to mere preferences. In the historical and pragmatic sense, I think the motives of profit, power and status are simply more reliable. As such, I prefer to shift focus away from preferences and onto the motives because I think they’re more likely to get the changes I want to see.

        It’s good to talk with you again. I missed blogging.

      3. On the cosmological argument, turtles all the way down!

        I agree that human rights are preferences. But the issue I see with depending on just motives of profit, power, and status, is that just letting those alone play out can lead to things like slavery and the racist propaganda to justify it. Not having people in slavery, or a class of people regarded as subhuman, is a preference, or set of preferences. Maybe those things wouldn’t happen with openness and transparency, but that itself is a preference.

        All of which is to say, I think we have little choice but to deal with preferences, and find a consensus on which ones should be honored by those who want profit, power, and status.

        It’s good to see you back! I’ve missed your perspectives.

      4. Interesting, do you think those preferences follow money/power/status or do you think they lead money/power/status? In other words, which is the horse and which is the cart?

      5. Good question. It’s a complex issue, but answering strictly to the question you asked, I think preferences lead, not of the individual but of the society. Consider that being a slave trader in 1700 came with money, power, and status. Many of them are just now having their statues torn down. In 1800, it still came with money and power, but the status was starting to fray due to those pesky abolitionists gradually changing everyone’s preferences about slavery. By 1900, you might still get money, but any status, not to mention your own freedom, depended on keeping what you did secret.

        That said, a person’s preferences seem to be heavily influenced by what they perceive, consciously or unconsciously, as being in their interest. In 1750, slavery was a distasteful but seemingly unavoidable fact of life. By 1850, after the industrial revolution was making skilled labor more important than brute labor, when slavery was starting to become economically obsolete, it was a lot easier for many people to regard it as vile and inhuman. Unless their livelihood still depended on it, then it remained a vital institution.

      6. I think that’s important to keep in mind. We tend to see morals as these things that exist independently and that we know intuitively. In the course of my studies, I think this is almost exactly backwards. We use morals to explain the things that are already in our interests in most cases.

        For example, when I read the ancients, I don’t find them to be any less intelligent or honorable than we are. And yet, whether we’re talking about very intelligent, very honorable and very nice people like Marcus Aurelius and Mencius or saints like Muhammad and Siddartha Guatama, the idea that you could or should get rid of slavery just never occurs to them. (This is doubly true if, like me, you feel that serfdom and slavery overlap quite a lot.)
        The idea that slavery is bad doesn’t occur to many people at all until a critical mass of them were able to make their livings off trade and industrialization.

        I don’t think this says anything particularly bad about human nature, either. We have morality because it helps us survive. When slavery helped us survive, we considered it natural. When it became associated with antique economic models and started to get in the way of industrialization we decided it was bad.

      7. That’s a good point. To see slavery as bad required being able to imagine a world without it. With lab grown meat being developed, I wonder if we’re about to see a similar process with animal welfare, as it becomes increasingly easy to imagine a world without animal husbandry.

      8. I think that’s very likely.

  3. Ben,
    My father has long characterized the plight of African Americans in terms of white slavers destroying their family and cultural bonds. I hadn’t realized the full context of that destruction until reading your post. The theme has always made sense to me though.

    Thus these modern protests shouldn’t help fix much, since ultimately police violence and even racism itself should not be the main problem today. (This new police shooting in Wisconsin will of course pour gas on the fire.)

    The question seems to be, how might government foster the repair of family and cultural damage given the poor state of things? I agree with your suggestion that immigration and interracial marriage should help some. Further development of positive role models should as well.

    What we seem to have today is a split culture. Those who are nevertheless able to build stronger families tend to do okay, though not otherwise. This situation can be contrasted with a more clear example of social persecution. The incredibly persecuted LGBTQ community has with amazing speed become quite socially accepted in modern America, and so going forward should tend to do fine. The damage which has been inflicted upon the African American community however should be far more difficult to mend.

    1. Thanks Eric, I am glad you enjoyed this article. I recommended it to you because I thought it might connect with your interest vis a vis science and ethics. In particular, I wondered if you thought I was fair to the biologists.

      1. I don’t think you were unfair to them Ben, but then for the most part they seemed to be referencing some pretty horrific positions. (And in case anyone’s interested, here’s a link to where our conversation began elsewhere: https://selfawarepatterns.com/2020/08/02/the-forlorn-search-for-moral-realism/comment-page-1/#comment-90204)

        On science and ethics, I believe that science in general needs to be approached amorally. This is to say that effectiveness mandates that scientists explore reality regardless of their various socially constructed inclinations. This seems most challenging in our mental and behavioral varieties. The closer a given science gets to the central field of psychology, the “softer” it should tend to be given personal connection.

        Instead of science getting into various values, or chance notions of morality and such, I believe that it needs to explore value in a singular capacity. I presume that there is a kind of physics by which existence can be good/bad for what arises by means of that physics, and not otherwise. If there is a value component to our existence, and yet science does not yet formally explore this dynamic, then to me it makes sense that our mental and behavioral sciences would be so soft.

        On your concerns about scientism, “science” is actually something that I consider to apply to most of what the human does. I see this essentially as how we figure things out. For example I consider the three basic branches of philosophy to address the foundation upon which all science rests. And without a community of respected philosophers providing scientists with generally accepted principles of 1) metaphysics, 2) epistemology, and 3) axiology, science shouldn’t yet rest on ground which is as solid at it might. This is something that I’d like to help remedy.

  4. […] armed protesters likely to make the protests even bloodier than they already are? A: It could. As I wrote at length, I would much rather resolve this problem through immigration and sex – that is abandoning […]

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