Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Race and Reality


I haven't forgotten about the Dark Knight, but two very recent pieces of writing were just too interesting to not share a Baha'i thought or two about. First from Slate.com is a piece about the origins of the notion that white people are "Caucasian":

Do White People Really Come From the Caucasus?
How Caucasians got their name.
By Derek Thompson
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008, at 7:22 PM ET

"Russia continues to occupy the former Soviet state of Georgia, despite agreeing to a cease-fire last week. "The Caucasus is a difficult and complicated place," one Russian political scientist told the Financial Times, referring to t! he small mountainous region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea that comprises Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Wait, do white people really come from the Caucasus?

It's highly unlikely. There are scholarly disagreements about how and when some of our dark-skinned ancestors developed lighter skin, but research suggests humans moved across the Asian and European continents about 50,000 years ago. Some anthropologists think that natural selection would have favored lightening mutations as humans moved away from the equator and faced a diminished threat from ultraviolet exposure. In this case, it's possible that light skin would have evolved in many places independently.

So why do we call white people Caucasians? The term was popularized by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who in 1795 divided the human species into five races: Caucasian, the "white" race; Mongolian, the "yellow" race; Malayan, the "brown" race; Ethiopian, the "black" race; and American, the "red" race. He considered the Caucasians to ! be the first race on Earth, consistent with the common conception of the Caucasus as a place of human origin. The Bible describes Noah landing his ark at a place called Mount Ararat, which was thought by Europeans of Blumenbach's time to be on the modern Turkish-Armenian border. (Ararat is still the name of the largest mountain in Turkey.) In Greek mythology, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus.

Blumenbach considered the skulls of the Georgians to be the epitome of the white race, and he named the first class of humans after the country's home in the Caucasus Mountains. Blumenbach's class of Caucasians included most Europeans, Northern Africans, and Asians as far east as the Ganges Delta in modern India. As more scientists pursued racial classification in the 1800s, they relied on Blumenbach's nomenclature, cementing the region's legacy in anthropology.

Americans still use the word Caucasian to mean "white" despite the fact that they haven't always been synonyms in the eyes of the law. In U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court argued that although Asian Indians were technically Caucasian, they couldn't be U.S. citizens because they weren't "white." That decision was reversed with the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which made naturalization legal among Filipinos and Indians."

Another comes from the Boston Globe Columnist Jeff Jacoby, addressing the recent demographic hoopla about how whites will be a minority in a few decades:

"WHEN THE Census Bureau announced last week that white Americans would dwindle to less than half of the US population within a generation, the media quickly spread the word.

"A new census report says that whites in the US will be a minority by the year 2042," announced NPR's Farai Chideya, while over at CNN Tony Harris proclaimed that "the complexion of America is changing and a lot faster than you think: In just 34 years, the Census Bureau says whites will no longer be a majority in this country." The Associated Press moved a story headlined "White Americans no longer a majority by 2042." Once again, the nation's unhealthy obsession with sorting people into categories based on color and ancestry was in the news.

But there was another problem with all this coverage of how white America is becoming a minority: The Census Bureau never said it.

You can see the numbers for yourself on the Census Bureau website. In a spreadsheet titled "Projections of the Population by Race and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2008 to 2050," the bureau forecasts a rise in the number of whites from about 243 million today to 325 million at midcentury - an increase of 82 million. A related spreadsheet gives the percentages: Whites today account for nearly 80 percent of the US population. In 2050, they'll constitute 74 percent - still a very hefty majority.

So what explains the persistent drumbeat about the impending white minority? A statistical distortion: the exclusion of Hispanic whites. If only non-Hispanic whites are counted, the white population today amounts to 66 percent of the total, and will hit around 46 percent by 2050.

But excluding whites of Hispanic origin from the overall white population makes no more sense than excluding whites of Slavic or Scandinavian origin. "Hispanic" is not a race. It is an ethnic category. As the Census Bureau repeatedly points out, Hispanics can be of any race. In the 2000 census, 48 percent of Hispanics identified themselves as white; Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has characterized them as "white in every social sense of this term." Bottom line: Of the 46.6 million Hispanics in the United States today, at least 22 million are white.

On both right and left, however, there are pressures to treat Hispanics as a distinct racial category. Many on the left covet the political attention and affirmative-action largesse that comes with minority-group status. In some quarters of the right, meanwhile, immigration alarmists warn that Hispanics are overwhelming the nation's "white" culture, dissolving the bonds of language and patriotism on which American civilization depends.

One of the lessons of US history is that racial categories are anything but meaningful scientific classifications. For generations, "whites" have been hearing that they are about to be engulfed by unassimilable foreign races, and for centuries those "races" have eventually become - white! Benjamin Franklin worried mightily about the threat posed to white American culture by the influx of German immigrants. "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens," he demanded in 1751, "who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?" Those "swarthy" Germans, Franklin was quite sure, "will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can adopt our Complexion."

A century and a half later, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge witheringly described the Russians, Poles, and Greeks entering the country as "races with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States." In the early 20th century, federal immigration officials classified the Irish, Italians, and Jews as separate races. Yet today all these groups are viewed collectively, and benignly, as "white."

And so, in time, will Hispanics, who give every indication of being just as assimilable as earlier groups. Most third-generation Hispanic Americans, for example, marry non-Hispanics. The overwhelming majority speak English. With a little luck, common sense, and goodwill, it will seem as odd in 2050 to focus on "non-Hispanic whites" as it would today to insist that only "non-German whites" are really white.

Better still, perhaps by then we will have really progressed, and abandoned the pernicious notion of racial categories altogether."

Both these columns underscore the reality that "race" is a social construct (simply put, people made it up and continue to make it up as we go along). In Baha'i language, much of what we believe about race amounts to "vain imaginings":

"All prejudices are against the will and plan of God. Consider, for instance, racial distinction and enmity. All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race...This signifies that racial assumption and distinction are nothing but superstition... God did not make these divisions. These distinctions have had their origin in man himself. Therefore, as they are against the plan and purpose of reality, they are false and imaginary."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 299)

Race is no more real than pink elephants or purple dragons. However the consequences of the idea of race are very real indeed. Race has been one of the most destructive notions to spring from the human mind in the past four hundred years and it may require another four hundred to mend what has been broken because of it. In the mean time, any opportunity we have to expose the truth about the idea of race strikes at the heart of the power it exerts in our lives and in the world.