Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Conservation or Elimination of Races?

In the late 1800's the immortal W.E.B. DuBois wrote an essay called "The Conservation of Races". It's a rich piece of writing that I will not even try to summarize, but is worth reading in full when you get the chance. There's a portion where he articulates a question that touches on issues in an article that I just read in the New York Times:

(From the Conservation of Races)

"For this reason, the advance guard of the Negro people–the 8,000,000 people of Negro blood in the United States of America– must soon come to realize that if they are to take their just place in the van of Pan—Negroism, then their destiny is NOT absorption by the white Americans. That if in America it is to be proven for the first time in the modern world that not only Negroes are capable of evolving individual men like Toussaint, the Saviour, but are a nation stored with wonderful possibilities of culture, then their destiny is not a servile imitation of Anglo—Saxon culture, but a stalwart originality which shall unswervingly follow Negro ideals.

It may, however, be objected here that the situation of our race in America renders this attitude impossible; that our sole hope of salvation lies in our being able to lose our race identity in the commingled blood of the nation; and that any other course would merely increase the friction of races which we call race prejudice, and against which we have so long and so earnestly fought.

Here, then, is the dilemma, and it is a puzzling one, I admit. No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these cross—roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American? (italics mine)

In other words, does the solution to the racial dilemma lie in assimilation and color-blind ideology or in the conservation of racial identity and a color-conscious ideology? If I insist on holding onto my racial identity and insist that others recognize it, am I not perpetuating racial divisions in society? If I abandon it and insist that others view me as "raceless" am I also abandoning whatever unique contributions to the betterment of society that my race (in the collective sense) might have to offer?

DuBois of course is talking primarily about the American context. Things get even more complicated when we widen the discussion to a global context (From the New York Times):

"Having always thought it was more racially enlightened than strife-torn America, France finds itself facing the prospect that it has actually fallen behind on that score. Incidents like the ones over the weekend bring to mind the rioting that exploded across France three years ago. Since it abolished slavery 160 years ago, the country has officially declared itself to be colorblind — but seeing Mr. Obama, a new generation of French blacks is arguing that it’s high time here for precisely the sort of frank discussions that in America have preceded the nomination of a major black candidate.

This black consciousness is reflected not just in daily conversation, but also in a dawning culture of books and music by young French blacks like Youssoupha, a cheerful, toothy 28-year-old, who was sent here from Congo by his parents to get an education at 10, raised by an aunt who worked in a school cafeteria in a poor suburb, and told by guidance counselors that he shouldn’t be too ambitious. Instead, he earned a master’s degree from the Sorbonne.

Then, like many well-educated blacks in this country, he hit a brick wall. “I found myself working in fast-food places with people who had the equivalent of a 15-year-old’s level of education,” he recalled.

So he turned to rap, out of frustration as much as anything, finding inspiration in “négritude,” an ideology of black pride conceived in Paris during the 1920s and 30s by Aimé Césaire, the French poet and politician from Martinique, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet who became Senegal’s first president. Its philosophy, as Sartre once put it, was a kind of “antiracist racism,” a celebration of shared black heritage.

Négritude and Césaire are back. When Césaire died in April, at 94, his funeral in Fort-de-France, Martinique, was broadcast live on French television. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his rival Ségolène Royal both attended. Just three years ago, Mr. Sarkozy, as head of a center-right party and not yet president, supported a law (repealed after much protest) that compelled French schools to teach the “positive” aspects of colonialism. The next year, Césaire refused to meet with him. Now here was Mr. Sarkozy flying to the former French colony (today one of the country’s overseas departments, meaning he could troll for votes) to pay tribute to the poet laureate of négritude.

That said, as a country France definitely sends out mixed messages. “Négritude is a concept they just don’t want to hear about,” Youssoupha raps in “Render Unto Césaire” on his latest album, “À Chaque Frère” (“To Each Brother”). A regular short feature on French public television, “Citoyens Visibles,” hosted by a young actress, Hafsia Herzi, celebrates French artists with foreign origins.

At the same time, it’s against the rules for the government to conduct official surveys according to race. Consequently, nobody even knows for certain how many black citizens there are. Estimates vary between 3 million and 5 million out of a population of more than 61 million." (Read all about it here)

France appears to be a country that has already experimented with implementing the kind of assimilationist/ color-blind ideology that is being loudly advocated by some in the United States as the basis of a post-racial America. It would seem that some in France are beginning to question the wisdom of such an approach. Has it actually worked?

Of course whatever the current stage of social development regarding race in the United States or in other countries, as a Baha'i my focus is on the future, a global civilization based on spiritual principles. Are races "conserved" or eliminated in this future world order? The answer to this question is not obvious to me. As I have argued in the past, there appears to be scriptural support for both a "race-affirming" and "race-transcending" perspective in Baha'i thought. It may be that God loves color, but it is also true that the soul has no race. If so, what are the social implications of recognizing this spiritual truth? Is there a Baha'i theology of race? If so, what are its fundamental elements? What do you think readers?