Monday, August 15, 2016

Race as Shorthand, Not as Reality

It has always been impossible to define race. Most humans who have ever lived have had characteristics that were recognizable for their race, although nobody could ever figure out how many races there were. For example, are subsaharan Africans all one race? Bantu people (e.g. Nigeria) look very different from Ethiopians and San (e.g. from Namibia).

But in many societies the dominant people found it extremely important to define race with an exactitude that the concept will not allow. This was particularly true for people of mixed ancestry, as many of us are. This resulted in such absurdities as the one-drop rule in pre-Civil-War America, in which “one drop of black blood” made you black, and if your mother was a slave, you were a slave, even if you were only (like the children of Sally Hemings) one-eighth black. The former Apartheid leaders of South Africa struggled with this concept so much that, in their pitiful final days of rulership, they had to define people from India as honorary whites. No more needs to be added to this, other than that if you have not read Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (a slave and a master, who were both one-eighth black, were switched in the nursery), you should.

Still, look around you, and you will find that race is a useful shorthand for identifying people. Even the bluest of liberals cannot avoid it. And, for me, seeing all the different races helps me to rejoice in human diversity, more so than I would if I (perhaps more accurately) saw each person as unique. On the trams of Strasbourg, I enjoyed seeing Muslims and Jews, each in distinctive garb, mixing with saffron-robed Buddhist priests.

But many people want to make each race a category of blame. The most obvious modern example of this is that millions of conservatives consider all Muslims to deserve blame for the terrorist actions of a small number of them. The solution to terrorism, they believe, is to keep all Muslims out of America. By which they mean, all people Arabic ethnicity. (I’m not sure what they would do with red-headed white Muslims from Turkey or the former Yugoslavia.)

But I’m here to tell you, from personal experience, how evil this is. I am of partial Cherokee ancestry. My sixth great grandmother was Nancy Ward, the famous peace activist of the Cherokee Nation prior to the Trail of Tears. Her cousin, Tsiyu Gansini, was the last holdout of Cherokee warriors, whose Chickamauga warriors did not surrender until 1794 on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Tsiyu Gansini and his warriors committed numerous atrocities, and Nancy Ward could not stop them. Nancy Ward said “My cry is all for peace,” while Tsiyu Gansini said, “We are not yet conquered.” Today we would call the Chickamauga warriors terrorists.

And yet the United States considered all Cherokees to be guilty of the Chickamauga terrorism. In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, and all Cherokees, not just terrorists (of whom none remained by that time) were forced out of their homeland by the United States Army in 1838. Even though the Cherokees by that time had their own written language, newspaper, constitution, Supreme Court, and they lived in white-man houses and had white-man agriculture,
the United States still considered them savages and took their land. It was the category of “Cherokee” that allowed the government to hold all members of the category responsible for the terrorist acts of a few.

When I think about the really nice Muslims I have known, including the couple who struck up a really friendly conversation with us on the tram in Strasbourg, I know none of them approved of Islamist terrorism, any more than my ancestor Nancy Ward approved of the terrorist acts of her cousin, Tsiyu Gansini.

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