Racism creates racial boundaries, not vice versa

While it seems obvious that race is a biologically based concept, I now wonder if it is not even more a culturally derived one, analogous to sex and women confined to home and burka for their protection and reverence. So is race a meme, a cultural unit transmitted across generations? It is more complicated than that, I know given my last post about meme-weary, but consider these meme wannabes for your amusement: burning cross, white robe with pointy hat and mask or Confederate battle flag flown outside of a museum in contrast with the “I have a dream speech” and Black Lives Matter. And what about the photographs from the 60s civil rights work of Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses? All of these fit the definition, don’t they?

Going deeper, though, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical book Between the World and Me after seeing so many reviews about the power of its presentation and the passionate beauty of its writing. The reviews are pretty accurate in this regard so I heartily recommend reading this book. Early on he asserts that race (the concept of) is a result of racism (the attitude and belief) and not vice versa, as is often supposed. Wow! To frame it another way, race is more a cultural construct based on faulty biology, one engendered by most probably the sociobiological fear of the other. I think that our kinship feelings for our conspecifics is a powerful factor, one that I hope becomes ever more dominant through the burgeoning interconnectedness of global humanity. However, other factors such as territorial ‘ownership’, competition for mates and resources, and clan/tribal organization are also important features of our conspecific relations even as they constrain a more democratic, i.e., egalitarian and respectful, unification.

Consider the heinous example of King Leopold and the Belgian Congo in the 19th century. Using the age old technique of divide and conquer, the Belgians segregated the Hutu and Tutsis and set the two tribes against each other, building up a wall of ethnic prejudice and misinformation one against the other. Their respective leaders in the independent country of Rwanda played upon those differences to gain political power and that resulted in genocidal warfare around 1990. Ugh, humans! Their views of the other as distinct ethnically from themselves are not based upon their biology: they share their language, religion, and culture, they lived together peacefully enough for centuries before imperial colonization, and recent genetic tests confirm that they are the same population. Race is a tool of racists to gain power. To reinforce this notion, consider that when I lived in Japan I learned that many Japanese do not see any gulf between themselves and black people but they do see Koreans as a lower race, judging by their outspoken prejudices and evident attitude toward inter-marriage. This was, I was told, a remnant from the Japanese imperialism that culminated in WW2.

Another example of how race is a cultural construct used by imperialists can be found in Trevor Noah’s autobiographical book, Born A Crime, another excellent read. His mother was black and his father white and in apartheid South Africa the law prohibited their mating and that left his legal status in limbo. Further, his skin tone clearly showed that he was not black or white, so that walking with his mother or father would be to place them in legal jeopardy for breaking that law. That society had a category for ‘colored’, neither black nor white but he did not fit into that category for some reason. One theme of the book derives from his wandering the racial boundaries, not belonging to any one category yet living with them all. He was bright. His extended family helped him to learn many languages, another manifestation of ethnic categorization, and his mother insisted that he obtain the best education possible, which also marked him as different. While post apartheid laws reduced his legal jeopardy, they did little to solve his dilemmas about how to make his way through a varied and at times difficult racial landscape. It is a great read and helps to appreciate his arrival as host of “The Daily Show” and his distinctiveness as nurtured by his mother who was a force of nature.

The amount of variation among ‘races’ is miniscule when compared with variation among species and even there the variation between simians and us is only a few percent. Any one person in a multi-cultural society, i.e., not geographically isolated or politically segregated, includes genes from other races. Many of us include genes from the Neandertal and Denisovans, who are not even Homo sapiens. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a truth quite succinctly when he said race is a consequence of racism and not vice versa, a cultural construct the biological basis of which is distorted by those who seek power and control. Oh humans!

In my clinical work I learned that each person is a gem, some are rough and some finely cut, but all have different facets, only one (well, maybe two, not sure of quantity here really) of which is race. Our goal, assuming we pursue a just democracy and compassionate, non-exclusive conspecific relations, is to see each person whole, each gem in its totality, taking in as many facets as possible and always mindful that our perspective from without is constrained by what facets life and society have cut and polished for our viewing and that the whole within, as difficult as it might be to apprehend, is one of our own. Travel on.

truth and grammar

I have had recent occasion to think more about these two popular and favorite topics, truth because despite my thinking it is a concept with definitive overtones, it seems as indeterminate today as it ever has, and grammar because, well, if you don’t know already, please continue reading.

Have you heard this phrase any time recently uttered, say by media pundits: You can have your own perspective but not your own facts. Well, facts too seem to be found in a variety of forms, some personal, some without verifiability, most eluding replication but still there nonetheless. The now old adage that we create own reality has a literal truth, and the power and at times loose subjective constraints of symbolization make civil society’s work at consensus (the result of a critical dialectic) all the more important. So facts bear some responsibility for consensual validation with the proviso that some people will agree with anything of the right emotional tone, e.g., righteousness, jingoism and other demagoguery are good examples (don’t say ‘baaa’). Since the late 18th Century (even before in way) empirical facts have born a standard of truth of logical verifiability, especially mathematical proof, determination of probability and when possible, replication of results. Indeed, the ancients knew the sun rises in the east and sets in the west even before any words labeled compass points, probably more than many moderns today. And now we have modern media pouring forth information at tremendous rates and often with a very low common denominator of factual truth, yet civil society depends upon a modicum, a necessary level of consensus in fact and perspective. Because we create our own reality, it would seem we could do so together quite readily, and we do in science and engineering but we don’t in religion and governance. An adaptive feature of humanity or a step towards our demise? Yes, if you believe in a dialectic.

Now grammar, at its inception, derives from feelings of fitness ranging from very awkward and frozen to quite comfortable and fluent. Consider your feelings of laterality, e.g., handedness. Cross your arms, right over left then left over right. One will feel more comfortable than the other. You can repeat this with folded hands (which thumb is on top?), crossed legs, kicking a ball, swinging a bat or pulling a rake, using one eye to view through a telescope, etc. A grammarian or linguist says a sentence and then intuitively tests its fitness in a similar fashion. These feelings vary across languages and within languages by dialect and social class. We can get creative violating grammar as in Yoda-speak. These feelings of grammaticality are how we apprehend the rules governing the linear construction of words and sentences as we formulate our thoughts for communication. My old English teachers taught grammar prescriptively, helping me fit into an educated class no doubt, but linguistics uses grammar more as a descriptive tool to trace relationships among languages, the nature of embedding and recursion, historical shift within a language, etc. We have been doing so for a long time. The earliest recorded grammars were by Sanskrit scholars in 6th-7th century BCE India. Here is a great stamp commemorating one, Panini. (I would not hold my breath for a stamp commemorating our greatest modern linguist, Noam Chomsky, though it is a good idea. He would probably refuse).


My point here is to use grammatical feelings of fitness as a general analogy for how we sense what is true, what fits together better, even best, and that this is as good, as knowledgeable about truth as we can be. Science uses mathematics to test our intuitions and confirm facts objectively (consensus or probabilistically) but even here, scientists operating under different paradigms have different intuitions of fitness. Thomas Kuhn illustrated this in his writings on scientific revolutions. For many years, the mathematical differences in accuracy between the Ptolemaic solar system and the Copernican one were negligible, but the latter felt more fit and upon further study proved to be truer. Last century physicist Paul Dirac is famous for a set of equations predicting previously unknown phenomena like the positron that were confirmed 20-30 years later, but he said at their initial formulation that they were “beautiful” and so he knew they were true. Even today some physicists challenge the standard model because some features do not feel right, and of course, our mathematical theorizing and ability to measure at increasingly smaller and larger scales has helped engender quantum physics, which leaves much of our intuition far behind. Extrapolating just a little from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religions (and gods) have changed over the course of human history to meet the changing demands of humans and our society—the new ones have a better fit than the old, e.g., a spoken prayer over a blood sacrifice for example (you do prefer the former, don’t you?).

Let me be clear and distinguish facts and truth. Facts are a relatively modern conception, while truth in various forms has been around for a long time. We can find truth most anywhere including the myth of Sisyphus, the better poems, the best music, Newtonian mechanics and quantum theory.  Truth is a biological phenomenon with deep roots and is an important one for our species. We think our thoughts, and our thoughts come and go in trains. The trains follow various tracks and stop at or pass by various stations. Some are fitter than others. There is still a station at Truth, I have seen it out the window as I passed it by, but I do not think many trains stop there. Actually I think that some trains do stop there when we are about 3 ½ years old (see previous post long ago about that maturational milestone) and then for some of the great ones (Pythagorus, Mozart, Newton, Picasso, Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, etc.). I have heard from supposedly reliable sources that a station at Big Truth exists, lying far off in the distance, past the last nerve track, so it still waits for a train’s arrival. Namaste.