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Sep 16th

Race: The most fallacious and dangerous idea

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The idea of "race" may be the most fallacious and dangerous idea in the history of myth and human imagination. In the early 1940s, Dr. Ashley Montagu, the eminent cultural anthropologist at Princeton University, titled his book "Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race." It is a work, which both objectively critiques and morally attacks the false notion of "race" as an indicator of individual ability and cultural achievement.

In many ways and by many years, Dr. Montagu presaged the emerging narrative on "race." In contemporary American life, more and more, we hear voices from a cross-section of thought leaders viewing "race" as a "social construction," with no biological reality. And so "the cat," somewhat, is finally "out of the bag," e.g. there are no super humans!

This fanciful belief that we, the human species, belong to separate and discrete aggregates has proved to be unscientific; that is to say, inconsistent with scientific truth, and therefore a gross distortion of who we are as human beings. Modern science, e.g., anthropology, repudiates the notion that to be Black, white, yellow, real or otherwise, does not inherently connect to one's native intelligence, morality, or sensibilities. When we say "race," it begins with a focus on physical traits, e.g., skin color, hair form, eye color, facial and body structure, and so forth. These are physical facts, which can be seen and measured. But it does not end there. This is not quite what we mean when we say "race." We mean something much deeper, which goes beyond mere facts that can be observed. According to structured "race" thinking to which American society is enslaved, the way one looks can tell you many things about one's behavior, without actually knowing anything about the person.

The paradigm goes like this: so-called white people are organized, business-like and intelligent (there are no idiots among them) just because they are so-called white. Black people are musical, athletic, funny, emotional and not intellectual - there are no geniuses among them - just because they are Black. And so it goes, Asians, all of them, are good in mathematics and good with computers and technical stuff - not a dull one among them. Presumably, these traits come only through genes, no matter what the environmental circumstances. To believers in "race," questions of culture, history, and collective experiences do not enter the picture. A given group of people's success or failure is all due to genes. This is called biological determinism, like predestination, which is believed in certain religious circles. One should not need science, but common sense, to observe; that there is something illogical and wrong-headed with this type of thinking. Genes may have something to do with, but could not, in the generality, tell how intelligent a given individual is. We must hasten to eventually add that there are multiple intelligences. There is no one way to be intelligent, like there is no one way to be human. This is as evident as the music we make.
"Race," therefore, is a myth. It is a powerful and pervasive myth, which obstructs clear thinking. A myth is a simple way to explain something that is complex. A myth is what makes thinking unnecessary. Now let it be said that all myth is grounded in some reality. A myth is not simply an idle tale from our folklore. Saying that "race" is a myth is different than saying that it is an outright lie. Myth is what the general society believes is true, although the beliefs are unfounded, shrouded in half-truths, distortions and fantasy. A myth is very close to superstition and indeed is an intrinsic part of superstition. Belief in witches, possession, and fetishes were once widely believed, and thus governed much, if not most, of that society's behavior. There are, however, certain aspects of "race" that are real. There is a predisposition of certain populations, not "races," to certain inherent diseases. Skin cancer and acne are pronounced among so-called white people with less melanin (color) in their skin. African Americans are disposed to contract sickle cell anemia, which is rare among European populations, and is equally rare among Africans in Africa. In short, Swedes do not fall victim to sickle cell anemia, and neither does Nelson Mandela's people in South Africa.

Human beings live in a material, man-made, psycho-social world, as well as a biological one. We must not confuse the two. Don't expect an Eskimo to build a skyscraper. Not because he is not capable, but because his culture does not demand a skyscraper. A culture will do what is demanded of it. "Race" and culture are two distinctly different phenomena, although too often we confuse the two, one with the other. A part of what we call "race" is nature, i.e. what one is born with. Culture, on the other hand, is what we acquire from our most immediate human surroundings, beliefs, knowledge, mores, habits, customs, and even certain emotions. One thing is natural, the other artificial. A tree is natural. Humans do not make trees. A wooden table is artificial (the opposite of natural) because it is woman-man made. Culture is learned social heritages. We possess this, just as we possess a biological heritage. We must never allow ourselves to confuse the two.

People have pale skin, very dark skin, blonde, red, black and brown hair. Some hair is long, some is frizzy, wooly, super curly, or wavy. People are short, tall, thick and thin. People have different body builds and facial contours. We don't need a scientist to tell us this.

None of this has anything intrinsic to do with whether one is a Jew, Christian, or Muslim, whether one is a Socialist, Democrat, Republican, Communist or Green Party member. These beliefs are acquired from one's culture, or new exposure and experiences that one might encounter. There is no such thing as being born a Christian any more than one is born a Communist. It ought to be obvious why most people in the West call themselves Christians and most people in the Near East and Far East call themselves Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Confucians, Taoists, and Shintoists. Some of what we are is inborn. Most of what we do is learned. To wit: there are not really any "purely" white, Black, or yellow people. Nor are there any half-breeds, mullatos, Zambos, Meztuzos, or assimiladoes. The geneticists are now telling us that the human family share 97% of the human gene pool. Only 3% separates us.

What does a teaspoon of water in a gallon of milk make up?

Mahmoud El-Kati, Professor Emeritus of History, Macalester College
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