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Monday, February 11, 2013

Race, Racism, And The Enlightenment

Justin Smith, writing in the New York Times (The Enlightenment’s Race Problem…2.11.13) is surprised that so few thinkers of the Enlightenment – the age that gave us Thomas Jefferson and the Bill of Rights – was so intractably ‘racist’, and that even the most brilliant and original philosophers such as Immanuel Kant could have been fettered within such narrow boundaries:

Describing a report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid”.

On the other hand, he lionizes both the minor philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo, a Guinean transplanted to Germany at a very young age and especially Johannes Gottfried Kraus, the rector of the University of Wittenberg who granted Amo his doctorate and praised Africa for its learning and erudition. Smith is quite disingenuous in his praise because it is clear that Kraus is not referring to black, or sub-Saharan Africa, but the Africa known to and colonized by the Romans:

From memory, no one has ever been judged better informed in matters of daily life, nor more a man of refined manners, than Terence of Carthage. Plato himself was reborn in the Socratic interventions of Apuleius of Madaurus. His discourses were so well received in centuries past that learned men were divided into two camps: that of Apuleius contended with that of Cicero for the first prize in eloquence. And in the development of Christian doctrine, how many were its promoters who came from Africa! Only to speak of the greatest of them, let us cite Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Optatus, Augustine, whose disputed with candor across the full range of the knowledge they had acquired. (Dedicatory Epistles to Amo’s De Humanae)

Nor is it clear the real motivation behind Krause’s praise of Amo. The Rector appears impressed with Amo’s scholarship, but his effusive praise might have ironically had something to do with his own racism. He refers to the Gold and Ivory Coasts as great treasures of Africa, but at the time, fifty years before Mungo Park headed inland to determine the direction of the flow of the Niger, he could not have known – as Park, Paul du Chaillu and other early travellers discovered – that West Africa was a very primitive place indeed. Krause conflates the ‘genius’ of Roman North Africa with all of Africa out of ignorance and is very likely saying, “See what we Europeans can do with even an ignorant black African – especially if we encourage him to appreciate the scholarly achievements of his ‘African’ predecessors?”.

The French were very good at this duplicity during their colonial period.  They used to select ‘honorary Frenchmen’, Africans that they would select according to a package of criteria which suggested an affinity with French culture, educate and train them, and send them back to Africa to help the cause of their mission civilisatrice. The French never believed that black Africans were equal to white Europeans; but they wanted to show that with the right French discipline, intellectual exposure, and persistence an occasional few could be behaviorally modified.

In other words, the proclamation of Kraus taken alone must be looked at suspiciously, especially given the times in which he was writing; and most certainly he should not be raised to a high ‘multicultural’ pinnacle or be selected as a visionary.  For example, the much more well-known and respected philosopher David Hume said, in the tune of the times (quoted by Smith):

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”

Smith continues with his disingenuous reading of history when he continues his praise of scholars like Amo and their fight for black African rights:

Here he argues, on the basis of a reading of Roman history and law, that in antiquity “the kings of the Moors were enfeoffed by the Roman Emperor” Justinian, and that “every one of them had to obtain a royal patent from him.” This meant, in Amo’s view, that African kingdoms were all recognized under Roman law, and therefore all Africans in Europe have the status of visiting royal subjects with a legal protection that precludes their enslavement.

Whew! Of course the Romans exacted fealty, taxes, and much more from their subjects in North African provinces; but the term ‘recognized’ is very far fetched indeed. The Romans set the precedent for Mohammed’s Arabs as they coursed their way through North Africa on the way to Europe – pay tributes and taxes, and we will leave you alone.

It must also be remembered that Amo was taken by slavers at the age of four from his native Guinea and landed in Germany a few years later.  That is, he could have had little conception of life in black Africa, and his views on the continent were derived solely from his reading of history. There was no reason whatsoever to believe that his view of ‘all Africans’ was any more than the likes of Terence of Carthage.

The disingenuousness gets worse:

Why [asks Smith] have we chosen to go with Hume and Kant, rather than with the pre-racial conception of humanity espoused by Kraus, or the anti-racial picture that Herder offered in opposition to his contemporaries?

We have chosen to ‘go with’ Hume and Kant because since the Aryans descended from the Steppes and set up the first apartheid, class-color distinction favoring their light skin and demonizing the dark hues of the Dravidians, race has mattered. 

As importantly, culture has always mattered and when race is added in, few 18th Century European observers could hardly come to any conclusion other than that Africans were savages. What else could they conclude after reading Mungo Park? Seen from today’s perspective, one can take a more inclusive view.  The brutality, savagery, and inhumanity of the Bambara and other tribes which manhandled, enslaved, and harassed him were not savage, but legitimate expressions of human nature.  These people’s worldview is no different, we say, from our own territoriality, economic ambitions, and aggression.

All this dissection of philosophical perspective, however, misses the point about American racial prejudice. We continue to hold prejudicial views about African Americans because they remain a marginalized, culturally different sub-group, which, when compared to white, middle class, traditional American values are antisocial, dysfunctional, and dangerous. If crime rates for blacks are so much higher than for whites, is it not reasonable – as the venerable Jesse Jackson himself said – to quicken the pace when he sees a black teenager walking behind him?  When the black community universally accepts majority social, moral, and ethical norms, discrimination will cease. There is nothing magical in the color of one’s skin; but it is an accurate marker of social distinction.

Does the ignorant, mass racism and color prejudice expressed by Kant and Hume exist today? Of course it does.  I have spent enough time outside my native New England and liberal Washington, DC enclave to hear racial hatred – pure, unmitigated, skin-color, N-word hatred – spewed with more bile, spit, and foam than I could ever imagine.  Yet, I am convinced that I am hearing this from whites who themselves are marginalized, remote from the mainstream, insular, and frightened.  They feel besieged, reduced in number, and threatened.  Once the economic divisions which still divide the country become less, these whites will look at people as partners or competitors, the only characterizations which matter in the marketplace.

Smith acknowledges that some modern-day thinkers at least acknowledge the necessity of at least temporarily using race as a convenient marker:

Anthony Appiah identifies himself as a racial skeptic to the extent that the biological categories to which racial terms refer have been shown not to exist. Yet at the same time he acknowledges that the adoption of “racial identities” may often be socially expedient, and even unavoidable, for members of perceived racial minorities. Ron Mallon has in turn distinguished between metaphysical views of race on the one hand, which make it out to describe really existent kinds, and normative views on the other, which take race to be useful in some way or other, but not real.

This means that both whites and blacks find it convenient to use race as a social descriptor.  As above, whites legitimately generalize about race-related crime and social dysfunction.  Blacks use race to continue the generous entitlements offered by government and to cry ‘racism’ when productive litigation, made easy by politically correct politicians and lobby groups, is always an option.

Smith goes on to reasonably state:

It is American culture that is principally responsible for the perpetuation of the concept of race well after its loss of scientific respectability by the mid-20th century. Even the most well-meaning attempts to grapple with the persistence of inequality between “blacks” and “whites” in American society take it for granted at the outset that racial categories adequately capture the relevant differences under investigation

However, he then criticizes this tendency.  Why, oh why, he asks, can’t we rise above these petty, unscientific categories? 

I can only suggest that Mr. Smith, a philosopher, turn to a less selective reading of history to understand such a complex phenomenon as racial prejudice.  There is hope yet, for he at least refers to this complexity.  Why do we persist in our racial prejudices, he asks:

This may have something to do with the fact that the two broad cultural-historical groupings of people in this country, which we call “white” and “black” and which have been constituted through the complicated histories of slavery, immigration, assimilation, and exclusion, tend at their extremes to correlate with noticeably different phenotypic traits.

In his last paragraph, however, he returns to form and expresses all his frustrated idealism in full flower:

As long as we go on speaking as if racial categories captured something real about human diversity, we are allowing the 18th-century legacy of Kant and Hume, which was never really anything more than an ad hoc rationalization of slavery, to define our terms for us. We are turning our back on the legacy of Anton Wilhelm Amo, and of his European contemporaries who were prepared to judge him on his merits.

Dream on, Mr. Smith.

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