Monday, June 02, 2008

Racialism or Racism?


Henry Louis Gates Jr. has done it again. He requested and was granted an interview with Dr. James Watson, who caused a bit of a dust up when he restated the tiresome view that blacks are less intelligent due to their genes. In an article published in The Root called, "The Science of Racism" Gates shares his reflections on the interview reaching the conclusion that Watson is not a "racist" but a "racialist". Gates states:

"I don't think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the "gene" is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly "measures" or "determines" is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences. The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, the sort epitomized by David Duke and his ilk, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best. (I have not been able to determine if the writer who reported the remarks taped them or reconstructed them from notes or memory.)

But I did leave Cold Spring Harbor convinced that Dr. Watson believes that many forms of behavior—such as "Jewish intelligence" (his phrase) and the basketball prowess of black men in the NBA (his example)—could, possibly, be traced to genetic differences among human beings, although no such connection has been made, and will probably never be made on any firm scientific basis, it seems to me."

The distinction Gates makes between racism (belief in the racial superiority of this group over that group) and racialism (belief that perceived differences between races are biological, in addition to other definitions) made me curious about the concept of "racialism" in Baha'i thought.
The references I located that refer specifically to "racialism" are mostly from the writings of Shoghi Effendi who served as the Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1921-1957, where it is listed as one of various "isms" with which Baha'is specifically and humanity in general would have to contend. In one instance racialism represents one of three "false gods":

"The chief idols in the desecrated temple of mankind are none other than the triple gods of Nationalism, Racialism and Communism, at whose altars governments and peoples, whether democratic or totalitarian, at peace or at war, of the East or of the West, Christian or Islamic, are, in various forms and in different degrees, now worshiping. Their high priests are the politicians and the worldly-wise, the so-called sages of the age; their sacrifice, the flesh and blood of the slaughtered multitudes; their incantations outworn shibboleths and insidious and irreverent formulas; their incense, the smoke of anguish that ascends from the lacerated hearts of the bereaved, the maimed, and the homeless.

The theories and policies, so unsound, so pernicious, which deify the state and exalt the nation above mankind, which seek to subordinate the sister races of the world to one single race, which discriminate between the black and the white, and which tolerate the dominance of one privileged class over all others -- these are the dark, the false, and crooked doctrines for which any man or people who believes in them, or acts upon them, must, sooner or later, incur the wrath and chastisement of God."
(Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 113)

Whether this selection and others referring to racialism are using it as a synonym for racism or as a distinct concept is unclear. It could be argued however that racialism is the basis of racism and as such is equally problematic in any case. The language used regarding racialism is "strong stuff" as they say, making it clear that it is not simply politically incorrect, but spiritually and morally incorrect placing individuals and societies in conflict with God. This is purely a preliminary and superficial treatment of a complex subject, something I hope to explore more deeply in the future. I'll close with what may prove to be "prophetic" remarks by Professor Gates:

"As I drove away from Cold Harbor, I realized that my conversation with Dr. Watson only confirmed something I already, with great trepidation, have come to believe: That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA. It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference."

I hope he's wrong. Time will tell.