WHAT IS RACE?
Let’s set aside the scientifically thorny question of whether the concept of “race” reflects the biological reality of the species homo sapiens.
No one prior to the Enlightenment, after all, thought to divide human beings into categories marked by differences of “race.” Different tribes, laws, languages, customs, and gods, sure. But not “race.” The concept was unknown. The very idea of “race,” which is the basis of racism, is a relatively modern idea, bound up with modern philosophy and modern science, unimagined by thinkers in classical antiquity.
Regardless, many Americans today as well as many people around the world, including the learned and the unlearned, think “race” is a real category with real meaning that reflects real differences within the human population. Many modern people talk about “race” as a matter of fact.
So let us posit, as an assertion and without argumentative demonstration, that “race” is a term that reflects some kind of biological truth.
THE MORAL HIERACHY OF RACISM
Let’s also posit—as a definition and as a shared premise among many Americans—that racism is: a generalization, unsupported and unconfirmed by data, that all members of some racial groups are inherently inferior, in morals or intellect or both, to other, superior racial groups.
Most controversies over anything remotely connected to racism, after all, have little to do with mere insights into physiological or genetic qualities shared by members of some “race.” People don’t march in mass protests or burn buildings, for example, when they reflect on the fact that Americans of African descent are more likely than other Americans to land a job in the NBA or to end up with sickle cell anemia.
Controversial racism springs from suggestions that one “race” might be morally or intellectually better or worse than others. So let’s focus on the kind of racism defined as any unfounded race-based generalization of moral hierarchy.
THE WRONGNESS OF RACISM
Let’s also posit, just to begin find some common moral ground of agreement, that racism is morally wrong.
This essay, in other words, is written for an audience who thinks racism is:
- morally wrong,
- a scientifically unsubstantiated moral hierarchy,
- and therefore controversial.
For that audience, I ask a question: Can anyone of any skin color speak credibly about the problems of racial injustice, racism, and related subjects?
CAN WHITE PEOPLE SPEAK ABOUT RACISM?
What about those who think that speaking about racism is the reserve of Americans with black skin—or Americans with other skin color(s)—or members of certain racial groups that constitute numerical minorities within the larger population of the United States?
Here’s the shocker: Anyone, of any skin color, can know why racism is wrong and problematic. And anyone, of any skin color, can help to right that wrong and solve that problem.
To be clear: I have pasty, white skin. I grew up in a dusty, tiny Midwestern town. If someone asked me if I know what it’s like to grow up as a black man (or woman) in an American city, the answer, of course, is: no. I don’t.
But that’s not the end of the discussion. It’s only the beginning. One’s personal experience and one’s skin color do not determine what is justice, nor do they determine one’s capacity to understand it.
RACISM IS WRONG BECAUSE EQUALITY IS RIGHT
Consider this very simple, basic moral question: Why is racism wrong?
The answer is: Racism is wrong because natural human equality is right. And true.
Natural human equality is the idea that each and every human being, everywhere, always, is emphatically equal to all others in his or her natural right to one’s own mind, body, and property.
Each and every human being, everywhere, always, is emphatically equal to all others in his or her natural right to one’s own thoughts, opinions, and speech.
Each and every human being, everywhere, always, is emphatically equal to all others in his or her natural right to one’s own individual freedom to live, to live freely, and to work to improve one’s own life.
The idea of natural human equality applies to everyone. It includes all people, of all colors. It can, therefore, be understood by anyone and everyone, at least in principle. It is the principled reason why racism is wrong. It is the solution to the problem of racism.
COLORBLIND LOGIC OF MORALS
Simply stated: Violating the person or property or individual freedom of some people based on their skin color is wrong because natural human equality is right. And true.
It is impossible to deny natural human equality and to argue that racism is wrong—and be consistent with the logic of morals—simultaneously.
Further, the logic of morals is not the preserve of any “race.” The logic of morals can be discerned by any reasoning mind, anywhere, anytime, regardless of skin color or ethnicity or cultural background, because the logic of morals is moral truth rooted in the human nature that all human beings share and in which all human beings participate.
That means anyone, of any skin color, in principle, can know why racism is wrong and problematic. And anyone, of any skin color, can help to right that wrong and solve that problem.