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?


  1. Phillipe, I have asked myself exactly the same question time and again and cannot come to any clear conclusion. I have heard Baha'is argue for conservation and for elimination of races.

    Baha'u'llah challenges us to build a new global civilization on foundations of unity, justice, compassion, trustworthiness and so on. He also commends diversity over uniformity.

    Politicians and civil society UK discovered the joys of diversity some years ago and now all forward-looking organizations have "diversity officers". But which organizations have "unity officers"? None as yet. Yes, we discuss social cohesion and wonder what that means, but no one (not even Baha'is, I suggest) has even a glimmering of what the kind of unity that Baha'u'llah teaches will mean in a future global civilization.

    Perhaps, like so many other things, this understanding will evolve. Perhaps we have to go through a stage when people from different ethnic and religious groups claim their identities before it becomes possible for people to realize that these identities are partial and that their lives can attain their full meaning only in a world that is united in the way that Baha'u'llah envisions - and, of course, we can do no more than glimpse that vision as yet.

  2. I like your summary: "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."

    I think the answer, like many concepts in the Baha'i Faith is: sort of. A lot of the time the answer to the question is "That's not the right question to ask." For now, actions that are race affirming are necessary with the underlying motivation that the essence is that the soul has no race.

    One of my favorite things about Baha'u'llah's teachings are that he establishes a new framework for evaluating our lives. One of the features of this framework is that things have an internal essence and a visible appearance. These two factors are often not identical but it's best when they are in harmony. For example, "The tabernacle of Unity hath been raised." This says in the past tense that Unity has already come into being even though looking at the world this would not seem to be the case. I think it says that Unity is the internal essence of creation. Our job as Baha'is is in some way to bring the appearance of the world into harmony with its essence. I think apparent diversity is the harmonious outward appearance of an essential unity. To bring it back to the topic at hand, I think the correct and harmonious outward appearance of "the soul has no race" is a societal expression of "God loves color". I'm sure `Abdu'l-Baha says it better somewhere, but I'm not enough of a scholar to quote him here. The social implications of recognizing the spiritual truth of unity is the appearance of a natural, unforced, unselfconscious expression and acceptance of diversity.

    Until that diversity is our cultural norm, and probably for a long time afterwards, everyone, especially the Baha'is, need to follow Shoghi Effendi's instructions to strive to eliminate from our hearts all traces of prejudice. Shoghi Effendi makes it pretty clear that at least from his point of view, we all have prejudice, even if we think we don't. I think that means we shouldn't pretend we can get away with ignoring race, either in the way the French government does or in the way that 'post-racial' philosophy says we can. For me that means acknowledging that I am a 'Person of White Privilege' and recognizing when that privilege is disadvantaging someone else and trying to minimize their disadvantage. I'm still very ignorant in this.

  3. Thanks Barney and Jeff for getting the discussion going with such thoughtful answers. In my 10+ years in the Baha'i Faith it has seemed that it is a moving target, not fitting neatly into any of the current dominant viewpoints regarding race, ethnicity and diversity while sharing some elements with many of them. Part of the challenge lies in the fundamental "organic" change that the Baha'i Faith anticipates occurring both in human consciousness and in civilization in this age, a change that as Shoghi Effendi tells us the "world has not yet experienced". Our vision of the future is shaped by the constraints of the present. I wonder if that first generation of Baha'is in the Middle East or in the West would have visualized the way Baha'i communities currently look in 2008 or the ways in which the world that this community is forming in would have changed. It may be that in a new civilization the essentially erroneous concept of race will fade away, while ethnicity, nationality and culture will be "conserved" in new forms as human populations are freed from oppression, inequality and prejudice. There are glimpses of this even in contemporary Baha'i communities around the world.

  4. Allison9:12 AM

    Phillipe, you mention that there is support for "race-affirming" and "race-transcending" perspectives, but I would describe France's approach (knowing only as much as you describe here in the post) as ignoring race. It seems to go against reality to turn away from such a basic part of how humans are genetically, socially and culturally associated (or associate themselves). In my view, even a "race-transcending" approach would first acknowledge race and the different experiences it holds for individuals, and then move on from there.

    I have heard Baha'is say that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. That kind of idea may accommodate our genetic, social and cultural differences and how they inform our interactions (diversity), but also leave room for a soul that has no race and can transcend the differences (unity).

  5. Allison! Welcome to the conversation. Could you say more about the last part of your statement:

    "I have heard Baha'is say that we are spiritual being having a human experience. That kind of idea may accomodate our genetic, social and cultural differences and how they inform our interactions (diversity), but also leave room for a soul that has no race and can transcend the differences (unity)."

    What might be the social implications of what you are describing? I ask because it seems to me that the Baha'i Faith has a social mission, there are outcomes that we are working towards based on the application of spiritual principles. I'm curious what you think unity in diversity might look like in practice.

  6. Phillipe,

    I postulate that the differences in culture can have as strong, perhaps stronger, influence toward xenophobia as race does. Inter-tribal conflicts have historically been, and continue to be, based upon cultural differences - usually the two parties share the same skin color.

    Thus getting Arab Sunni to sit down with Persian Shia, Israeli Jew with Palestinian, and Hutu with Tutsi, means overcoming the cultural divide, not race. I think that as Baha'is we are called to each bridge - not ignore - cultural differences while appreciating, nay rejoicing in, the complexity and nuances of the other's culture. Perhaps that is unity in diversity (as opposed to unity despite diversity) in practice.

    These two elements, race and (tribal) culture, co-exist within each of us. As Baha'is neither should dominate our thinking. The thinking process has to be constantly filtered by spiritual means (prayer, worship, etc.) to allow us to see/think/grow - aware of the aspects of race and culture but not intellectually servile to them. When this finds active expression in our love toward others, in service to them, we are approaching unity in diversity, IMHO.

  7. Anonymous2:41 PM

    Dear Phillipe
    I have had reason in recent years to think about identity and how people define themselves. Of course we all have a multitude of labels we give ourselves and the relative importance of each of our labels can depend on the society we are raised in. The importance can change as we grow older. What turnmoil it can cause when one of our defining labels seems to conflict with another and we feel we have to choose make a preference. Not only are these labels part of our own feeling of identity, they can reflect our relationship to various groups in society.

    Time and time again, as I read the Bahai writings, I feel that what is important to us as human beings is respected. Sometimes, I think that in the great big picture (including this universe, life now, life after death etc) then race may not be important. But here, on this earth race is important because it is important to people and in a way it is the feelings of people that is important as our relationships are important. If everyone ceased to care about race then it would not be important. Of course that is not going to happen and denying race is an issue when it is a big issue is not an option.


  8. Anonymous6:00 PM

    I think, as individuals, we need to keep in mind the broad outlines of the society of the future as promised by Baha'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the House of Justice when we are deciding which part or parts of our individual and group identies should be cherished as a valuable contribution, to be shared, in building this new society. And which parts have outlived whatever usefulness they once had, and/or are disfunctional responses to the past and present.

    When we visualize unity in diversity only in the present and our inheritance of the past, without this wider view, I think it stymies individual and collective growth. We often become as children fighting over who gets to play with or keep what toys.

    As an analogy: wise parents understand the developmental stages of their children, and use the qualities and capacities of each stage to foster the optimal emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development of the adult the child will become--while at the same time loving them as children, and enjoying this short and fleeting stage. Again, only the broad outlines of the future of a child's life can be known, but we do know that childhood has a purpose, to develop an adult.

    Judith W in PA

  9. Chris3:30 AM

    When I was volunteering in the research department in Haifa I was asked to transcribe a Lakota prophechy about the seperation and reunion of races. This simple story has come to define my "Theology of Race" that enables an understanding of the current need to value racial differences and gifts, but to appreciate the long term process that spiritually enables a unity that will eventually transcend it. But unless we honor each others gifts of diversity that unity will not become possible...An extact from my PhD summarises that story transcribed which was later made into a painting that adorns the cover of my thesis.

    "In this painting the story is told of how humanity was divided by the Creator into different colored peoples who were given custodianship over differing types of knowledge. For a time they would be separate peoples while they learned how to be custodians of each form of knowledge. Later there would come a time when the different races would be called together again by the Creator to exchange and share that knowledge with each other, (which includes knowledge of how to carry it appropriately and honor its origins) and become one diverse family again and renew their relationship with each other, the earth and the spirit world. According to the teller of the story Lakota elders believe there are signs that the time for reconciliation and sharing have been upon us for some time now. The story continued that if we chose to ignore the signs reminding us to come together again to share, the Creator would take the earth into His hands and shake it, up to three times, to make us remember the call to share together again. Humanity would still have a choice upon each shaking of the earth until the third and largest shaking, accompanied by great suffering which would force us to realize our interdependence as family again...

    In this ‘story’ spoken of above, denying the spiritual connections is the cause of the extremes of wealth and poverty, the world wars and the degradation of the environment. Such dire circumstances will only stop escalating when we either make a conscious choice as peoples to respond to the above call to share, or when there is so much suffering we are forced to reconcile and share again with spirit as family."

  10. Chris3:13 PM

    “The ability to share knowledge requires systems that acknowledge and empower the right of Indigenous self-determination to define and control that knowledge, otherwise knowledge cannot be shared, merely taken. Freedom and self-determination are fundamental to both the capacity to love and to share. Both of the words ‘love’ and ‘sharing’ lose their meaning unless they are freely chosen.”

    Another simple story that indirectly contributes to my “Theology of Race” is from Abdu’l-Baha from a short tablet that beloved Ali Nakhjavani shared with me one night. To paraphrase and greatly shorten: There are two ways of being Baha’i. The first is that of a flower. The flower realizes its potential from seed to full bloom and it’s beauty is seen in its unique colour, shape and fragrance. It draws its life from the light of the sun. When you place many such differing flowers together you get a beautiful garden. The other kind of Baha’i is like a ray of light. The ray of light comes from the Sun, has the qualities of the sun and gives itself to the flower. When you place many different rays of light together, they form one ray of light. Their unity is more profound of the two kinds of Baha’is.

    While I can appreciate that an interpretation of this might reinforce a sense of dualism of race expressed earlier of “either” “or”. Yet again I feel it is more of a process of learning to love the flowers with selflessness, characterised by the love of the Sun, and then your love transforms your own flowering into a ray of light and you wish to give yourself to others like a ray of light as an act of love.

  11. is it "race"-biology that is affirmed in the Writings or is it +"race"-"a people", as in a culture, a language, a community, that is affirmed?

    Would it be fair to equate a biological race with hair color and eye color, and so distinctive qualities which will continue to appear according to genetic rules (rather than becoming a "mixture" of gray.) We may be used to seeing certain patterns of characteristics but as we mix biologically these characteristics will become different patterns. Blue eyes will not become less blue, or kinky hair less kinky. But we may see more brown skin on thin-lipped people.

    On the other hand the "race" or a people/culture/language will have some qualities of distinction but much more of mixing and changing relative extremes. Cultural flaws like female genital cutting among some cultures and peoples will cease and warmongering and domination of resources and people equally less common as we mix cultures. Is not the adoption of Rap and Jazz among the white people a mixing of this very kind of culture? Are not Indian astronauts something gained from the white culture making them fly?

  12. Chris,

    Your comments are perfect.


  13. Please God, that we avoid the land of denial, and advance into the ocean of acceptance, so that we may perceive, with an eye purged from all conflicting elements, the worlds of unity and diversity, of variation and oneness, of limitation and detachment, and wing our flight unto the highest and innermost sanctuary of the inner meaning of the Word of God.
    (The Báb)

    That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled -- what harm is there in this?.
    (Baha’u’llah, Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. viii)

    "O people of the world, ye are all the fruit of one tree and the leaves of one branch. Walk with perfect charity, concord, affection, and agreement. I swear by the Sun of Truth, the light of agreement shall brighten and illumine the horizons. The all-knowing Truth hath been and is the witness to this saying. Endeavor to attain to this high supreme station which is the station of protection and preservation of mankind. This is the intent of the King of intentions, and this the hope of the Lord of hopes."
    (‘Abdu'l-Baha, A Traveler's Narrative, p. 42)

    The world of humanity is like a garden and the various races are the flowers which constitute its adornment and decoration.
    (‘Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 268)

    And when you pass by a garden wherein vegetable beds and plants, flowers and fragrant herbs are all combined so as to form a harmonious whole, this is an evidence that this plantation and this rose garden have been cultivated and arranged by the care of a perfect gardener, while when you see a garden in disorder, lacking arrangement and confused, this indicates that it has been deprived of the care of a skillful gardener, nay, rather, it is nothing but a mass of weeds
    (‘Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - ‘Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 294)

    All mankind are the fruits of one tree, flowers of the same garden, waves of one sea.
    (‘Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 23)

    If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, different in ideas and of various fragrances, let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and color, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord. Become as waves of one sea, trees of one forest, growing in the utmost love, agreement and unity.
    (‘Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 24)

    The doves are white, black, red, blue; but notwithstanding this diversity of color they flock together in unity, happiness and fellowship, making no distinction among themselves, for they are all doves.
    (‘Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 425)

    "Consider the flowers of a garden. Though differing in kind, color, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm and addeth unto their beauty. How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruit, the branches and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of hues, form and shape enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof. In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which ruleth and transcendeth the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas and convictions of the children of men."
    (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 42)

    The fact that he is by origin a Jew or a Christian, a black man or a white man, is not important anymore, but, as you say, lends color and charm to the Bahá'í community in that it demonstrates unity in diversity."
    (Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 9)

    The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, whose supreme mission is none other but the achievement of this organic and spiritual unity of the whole body of nations, should, if we be faithful to its implications, be regarded as signalizing through its advent the coming of age of the entire human race. It should be viewed not merely as yet another spiritual revival in the ever-changing fortunes of mankind, not only as a further stage in a chain of progressive Revelations, nor even as the culmination of one of a series of recurrent prophetic cycles, but rather as marking the last and highest stage in the stupendous evolution of man's collective life on this planet. The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture--all of which must synchronize with the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Bahá'í Era--should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society, though man, as an individual, will, nay must indeed as a result of such a consummation, continue indefinitely to progress and develop.
    Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 163

    Whether Peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth. At this critical juncture when the intractable problems confronting nations have been fused into one common concern for the whole world, failure to stem the tide of conflict and disorder would be unconscionably irresponsible.
    The Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace”

    Far from aiming at the subversion of the existing foundations of society, it seeks to broaden its basis, to remold its institutions in a manner consonant with the needs of an ever-changing world. It can conflict with no legitimate allegiances, nor can it undermine essential loyalties. Its purpose is neither to stifle the flame of a sane and intelligent patriotism in men's hearts, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralization are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on the one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity...
    Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 41-42.

  14. Lex, thanks for sharing all the quotes. Please leave more comments in the future.