In conflict, there is sometimes clarity. The Trayvon Martin shooting has prompted one of the clearest and most succinct summations of race I’ve seen in a long while. And it comes courtesy of someone who is often an Angry Black Man journalist, Leonard Pitts, of the Miami Herald. This is really good stuff, and rings true, from the column:
“Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnicity. As the U.S. Census Bureau puts it in its 2010 Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin, “People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”
The long reason begins with an understanding that the word in question — race — is a term both meaningful and yet, profoundly meaningless. It is meaningful in the sense that it provides a tool for tribalism and a means by which to organize our biases, fears, observations, social challenges and sundry cultural products. It is meaningless in the sense that, well . . . it has no meaning, that there exists no definition of “black” or “white” that carries any degree of scientific precision.
We are taught to believe the opposite, that “black” and “white” are self-evident and immutable. But I invite you to look up Walter White, the blond, blue-eyed “Negro” who once led the NAACP, or Gregory Howard Williams, the university president who didn’t even know he was black until he was 10 years old. Dig up the old Jet magazine story about a woman who gave birth to twins — one “black,” one “white.” And then think again. Race is a fraud, a cruel and stupid fraud.
The people who came here from Europe did not automatically consider themselves “white.” They identified as Irish, Hungarian, Italian, Jewish, Armenian. As David R. Roediger observes in his book, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, they were emphatically taught that “white” was the identity that conferred status and privilege and that it was defined by distance from, and antipathy toward, black. They were advised to avoid being friendly with blacks or else put their whiteness at risk.
Nor did Africans kidnapped into slavery think of themselves as “black.” They were Mandinkan, Fulani, Mende, Songhay, Wolof. “Black” was something imposed upon them as justification for slavery and other means of exploitation. As one historian puts it: Africans did not become slaves because they were black. They became black because they were enslaved.
Indeed, as Mr. Pitts says, “race is a fraud, a cruel and stupid fraud”. There is no such thing as race. It is our tribalist instincts that keep alive considerations of differences based on skin color. People can easily become color blind when it benefits their prerogatives. It is the sporting fields that provide the most compelling evidence that racial bigotry is not innate to the human condition. The state of Alabama is as racially bigoted a place as any in the world, but none of its white inhabitants seem to much care that its college football powerhouses, Alabama’s Crimson Tide and Auburn’s War Eagles, field starting elevens that are overwhelmingly black.
Bigotry, i.e., tribalism, however, is innate. Imagine that it was less than a hundred years ago that the Germans, French, English and others were slaughtering each other wholesale on the European continent, undeniably providing the fullest and clearest expression of mankind’s tribalist instinct, while in America the descendants of these same European “races” were cooperating to build the freest, richest and most peaceful society in existence. There is certainly no such thing as a German, French or English race, as America’s experience with all of them melting into “white” attests. Bigotry is simply favoring one’s own group over others. It can be racial-based (i.e., skin color), or culture-based (usually language), or as simple as which uniform is worn by the players on the field. Fans of the Crimson Tide are bigoted against the players and teams of other schools, as other teams are bigoted against the Crimson Tide, without race factoring into the calculus at all. The point being racial bigotry is not durable. Not at all. In fact, it is quite fragile. As Pitts points out, there are no longer any Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans or German-Americans, or even Jewish-Americans.
The shooting of Trayvon Martin should be seen for what it is–an unfortunate incident that may or may not have been an expression of the shooter’s archaic racial bigotry. But the shooter’s motivation should be irrelevant, and mainly is, except to people which hope to profit by Mr. Martin’s tragedy, including not least the black commentators using the incident to foment racial animosity. Racial bigotry is fast becoming a relic of the past. It is only durable in contexts where it mainly doesn’t matter, like, for example, politics (for more, see my post Racial Bigotry–Politics and Sports in Birmingham, Alabama). Racial bigotry is like a gene that survives when it experiences no selection pressure. Bigotry, the favoring of one’s own group over another, will always be with us. It has been hard-wired with the ages, as human survival has long depended on group cohesion and commitment. But determining one’s loyalty group on the basis of skin color or culture is just one means of expressing our innate bigotry, and has all but become illegitimate–a detriment, rather than enhancement, to survivability. Except when an unfortunate and stupid incident such as Mr. Martin’s shooting can be used to keep the racial grievance gravy train flowing.