An Alternative to Race Relations:
by Yehudi O. Webster
There can be no human relations without a proactive human identity. However, such an identity cannot emerge, if government, activists, journalists, newscasters, and educators continue to bombard citizens with reminders of their differences along gender, racial, ethnic, and class lines. The schools and media emphasis on racial and ethnic differences is awe-inspiring, and it is carried out in the name of diversity. Race may be nonsense, it is argued, but you cannot deny that there are real cultural differences among people. Diversity has come to mean making citizens aware of their cultural differences.
As the argument goes, American society is becoming more and more diverse. Its inhabitants belong to a multiplicity of cultures — speak dozens of languages, adhere to various customs and worship and recreate in a various ways. As the argument goes, these differences ought to be valued. They should be a source of pride and celebration, rather than stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Differences are inescapable and enriching, and in order to minimize misunderstandings, citizens should be encouraged to appreciate and respect them. Citizens need to be given truthful information about others so that they would cease to fear differences. Once this fear is abolished, many prejudices toward others will also diminish.
On the face of it, these are persuasive arguments, but they are based on a questionable assumption¾rendering citizens sensitive to their group differences will generate inter-group tolerance and harmony. There is no evidence that increased sensitivity to differences increases tolerance. Indeed, on the contrary, discrimination, rejection, and exclusion invariably accompany sensitivity to differences. The reason for this is simple. We invariably treat the different differently, and in conditions of a perceived scarcity of and competition over scarce resources such treatment can escalate into virtual genocide. This is not to suggest that we should ignore differences. All human activities are predicated on classification of objects, which necessarily involves noticing differences. However, what is often ignored by those who champion racial classification and diversity education is that human activities, including the scientific enterprise, involves also the observation of similarities.
The multicultural agenda is not inclusive; it could be faulted for excluding arguments and sociological and anthropological perspectives that emphasize human similarities. Similarly, anti-discrimination activists should consider the proposition that prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion could be mitigated by endorsements of human similarities. In this context, both the curricula and media should include a human perspective on history and society. Such a perspective would draw attention to common human attributes, and there are multitudes of them. Apart from obvious, common biological characteristics such as bi-pedality and cranial formation, human beings share the following:
1. Belief in Gods, or God.
2. the possession of a conscience and a capacity for empathy to the extent of being moved to concern, remorse, and self-sacrifice on observation of pain in others.
3. attempts to avoid contradiction in thinking and speech. No “culture” can survive without embracing a conception of same and different. No “culture” has the same word for “yes,” and “no.”
4. the attaching of rituals and sacredness to the processes of birth and death.
5. an awareness of time to such an extent that human needs are dynamic. Thus the gratification of human needs is constantly projected and imaginatively extrapolated. Human needs, then, are futuristically conceived, and human beings are defined by their pursuit of a state of permanent biological self-realization.
6. an attachment to symbols to objects to the extent that some philosophers and social scientists describe human beings as “a symbolic species.” Human beings express a total dependence on symbols, not signs, in interaction. Thus concepts can have different meanings, metaphorical and literal, and can be distinguished from the things they represent.
7. not only a sense of self-I am a . . .-but also a variety of other contrasting, situational identities. However, what is common and foundational to all these identities is the quality of being human.
8. All human beings are capable of being moved to tears as an expression of sadness and overwhelming joy at the same event. In other words, the human emotional make up is a species characteristic.
9. Finally, as Aristotle observed, all human beings have an urge to learn and reason, and the ability to evaluate reasoning. Now that we have established that we, as members of the human species, bear a host of similarities, let us consider the notion of differences.
The concept, difference, may be characterized as a spatial or a temporal discontinuity, a change of pattern and the establishment of boundaries. The idea of a difference, then, presupposes an order of things. A difference is only observed through rupture of an order. What, then, determines an order? It is this question that underlies the social constructionist claim that differences are social constructs. This claim must be modified, however, in order to avoid tautology. Everything in society is socially constructed. Differences are specific ruptures of a given spatio-temporal order. That is to say, specific criteria of order must be first laid out in order to construct differences. For example, the categories women, Jews, homosexuals, and persons of color are constructed out of a perception that men, Gentiles, heterosexuals, and white people represent prototypical patterns. It is the observation of a deviation from these patterns that produces the others. If a woman is defined as a person without a penis, a person with a penis is an order from which “woman” deviates. As Monique Wittig notes: “Men are not different, whites are not different, nor are masters. But the blacks, as well as the slaves, are*
Jews are people who differ from Gentiles. The homosexual is someone who has different sexual preferences from a heterosexual. Black people are persons who differ from white people. In the very recognition and identification of a “Jews,” “heterosexuals,” and “whites”-those who are outside the order-“Gentiles,” “homosexuals,” and “nonwhites” are produced. To see “others” one must first identify a prototypical pattern, and this seeing is not done with eyes but minds already laced with an order and in pursuit of differences. The next question should be: What is the origin of gender, racial and ethnic orders? The search can only lead to the most influential texts in human civilization-Bible, Koran, Torah, Talmud, etc., etc.
The intrinsic circularity of gender, racial, and ethnic identities is obvious. White people, Gentiles, men, and heterosexuals are defined with reference to the their differences from black people, Jews, women, and homosexuals, respectively. Whites people are persons who have no black blood, and one drop of black blood makes the difference from whiteness. Black blood marks a deviation from the order of whiteness. Women are different from men. However, women are as different from women as men are different from women, and from other men. It has been observed that males and females have different pairs of identical chromosomes. The fact that there is so little focus on how men differ from other men, how women differ from other women, and how “people of color” differ among themselves indicates a certain passion for specific difference observation, a certain selectiveness that should give pause. There are differences between any two individuals or groups. Each individual is unique. But there are also similarities. The questions for the diversity movement to answer are: Why is there no movement to notice the similarities? Why are certain differences, and not similarities, being singled out for organizational attention?
A Tocquevillean observer would detect a striking feature of American intellectual and political life-a disposition to tolerate fallacies, particularly contradiction and equivocation. Scholars, journalists, and political representatives of all “ideological” hues classify themselves and the population racially then bemoan the pervasiveness of race consciousness in American society. In other words, racial classification is not identified as the foundation of “racial selves.” In Democratic and Republican debates, the presidential candidates disseminated categories such as black people, white people, black crime, the black family, Hispanic female, and African Americans, as if these were indisputable classifications. In general, the shifting attributions of the term race are ignored. Indeed, the equivocation is compounded by the idea of race as a “social construct,” for then “race” can be used to mean race consciousness, racial discrimination, racism, racial classification, a biological group, and a social group. “Black people” and “white people” can be referents of the poor and the rich, the oppressed and oppressors, and the powerless and powerful, respectively. In this saga of analytical superficiality and tolerance of fallacies, participants in discussions of affirmative action, multicultural education, and so on are like passing ships in the night.
Apparently incognizant of their own role in generating racialized identities, scholars proclaim that “race” is a “riddle,” a “social reality,” and a problematic and mysterious force operating beyond the control of human agents. But there may be method in this analytic madness, for what Orlando Patterson says of the idea of freedom may be said of “race:” “Like all intensely held beliefs, it is assumed to be so self-evident that there is no need for explicitness. Clarity on something so charged and sacrosanct might even be undesirable, for the virtue of a vague idea is that everyone can safely read his or her own meaning into it.”* The ultimate absurdity is the claim that race is a social construct, for this claim justifies the discussions and investigations of race relations that bring “race” to the fore of the citizen’s sense of self.
As a result of a continuous dissemination of the idea of race as a natural order, most people come to regard themselves as members of a race, and identify others racially. Thus attempts to show that races result from the practice of racial classification are both rare and unpopular. The American mind has been thoroughly racialized, and citizens believe in “race” as firmly as they believe in a God. But this acceptance of the existence of races introduces a contradiction. These same citizens: (1) continually revolt against the practice of racial classification, which lumps them together with other persons with whom they may not have much else in common; (2) protest against the discrimination generated by different racial identities; and (3) object to affirmative action to combat discrimination. They desire to be treated equally, as human beings, as individuals with constitutional rights, to be judged by “the content of their character” and not the colors of their skin, but, at the same time, they define and separate themselves according to the colors of their skin and religious beliefs.
The widespread belief in races can be traced to specific institutional practices. Federal, state, and local government institutions devote vast sums of financial and human resources to classify citizens racially, promote race-based programs, and fund research on races and race relations. Social scientists follow suit with systematic surveys and studies of so-called racial experiences. Educational institutions promote innumerable courses on race relations, and do not cater to the development of students’ analytical skills, or disposition and ability to reason. Thus, most citizens are oblivious to the absurdities in racial classification and the fact that many social problems will remain unresolved because of their racial classification.
Sensibly speaking, race is not the problem plaguing U.S. society. It is racial classification that is pervasive and logically indefensible. Relatedly, racism, is not a problem in American society, even though its many, many definitions suggest the presence of all kinds of conceptual difficulties. Rather, it is the allocation of persons to racial groups that underlies alleged instances of stereotyping, discrimination, and oppression. Races are a product of racial classification, and the belief in them is a symptom of poorly-developed reasoning skills. It follows, then, that only a superficial analysis would claim that race is a social reality. Rather, references to blacks or African Americans and whites, or Caucasians, reflect a devaluation of (logical) reasoning.
The propositions that races exist, either as a biological fact or a subjective reality, that cultural differences are pre-eminent, and that racism is a moral plague that devastates so-called racial minorities dominate social studies. In one form or another, these propositions influence studies of history, culture, economy, social interaction, as well as policies on crime, poverty, welfare, health care, . . . They have become part of the conventional wisdom, home truths that it would be sacrilegious to question. Even the most conservative, liberal, and radical scholar takes the existence of race, cultural differences, and racism for granted. Both the Census Bureau and educational institutions systematically promote the idea of racial and cultural differences. U..S. citizens are strikingly similar in their obsession with differences. It may be that the cultivation of differences is essential to the promotion and operation of competition. The different are more prone to compete than cooperate. But there is a price to be paid-the comparative absence of a human identity and a disposition to reason. How is the unity of humankind, the essential oneness of the human family, or communitarian ideals to be realized if, the education and socialization are saturated with racial-ethnic classifications? How can schools focus on the development of logical reasoning among students, if students are classified as not according to human but racial ethnic attributes?
The entire history of the Census Bureau indicates that racial-ethnic differences are arbitrarily constructed, not simply observed, selected, not merely recorded. There are countless differences in nature, society, and among persons. There are also countless similarities. We select, or choose to signify some phenomena, and not others. Thus, any choice to notice differences should be justified. Otherwise, the process of differences-discovery could be endless. But the question remains: why notice and celebrate differences and not similarities? Is the celebration of differences not counter-productive to creating an awareness of human similarities? Human relations require an emphasis on human species experiences, interests, and goals-ending global hunger, ecological destruction, and violence.
The organized and intense references to cultural differences do not generate the human self-awareness that is absolutely necessary for acceptance of differences. It forces citizens to think of themselves as different races and ethnic groups. What is forgotten is that it is one thing to notice differences about a human being. It is another to claim that human being is different from you, or me. Those defined as different are always treated differently, and it is this different treatment, called discrimination that creates tension and conflict. Celebrations of differences intensify awareness of separate life-styles, divergent experiences, and historically antagonistic interests. Which group hasn’t had an experience of pain at the hand of another? Can we, as human beings, “all get along,” if we are constantly being told how different we are? The constant references to racial and cultural differences should be counter-balanced, at least, with equally frequent references to human similarities.
There is something innocently dangerous about the intensification of group awareness of differences that goes under the name of multicultural education and diversity celebrations. Why on earth would educators, political, corporate, and community leaders continue to promote racial and ethnic differences in a century in which promotion of such differences accompanies acts of holocaustic savagery? The different easily become targets. Indeed, those who are defined as different are already an item of separation, and, in given political economic contexts, could become an object for negative imputations, different policies, and victimization. The human drive for economic security through ownership of land, property, and the accumulation of wealth furnishes these contexts. Combine unequal access to the means of life with an official emphasis on differences and the result is a social time bomb, as merchants are described as “Korean,” employers become “white,” landlords “Jewish,” and gang members “black” and “Latino.” Each group is claimed as a victimizer of the other. “Victims” then pursue “villains” to lengthen and immortalize the chain of victimization. If these are patterns underlying the thousand-year history of global “ethnic” conflicts, differences celebration is not an innocent act. The increasing popularity of the Nation of Islam, and growth of extremist “white” organizations are some of the side effects of differences consolidation. The governments of South Africa, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia traveled paths of emphasizing racial, regional, and ethnic differences, with well-known consequences.
People who are constantly being made aware of their gender, whiteness, blackness, and Jewishness should be expected to ignore human similarities, form separate groupings, and discriminate against one other. Genuine remedial proposals for prejudice and discrimination would aim at increasing recognition of human similarities. Within a common human identification, problems of economic deprivation and violence could be discussed without mutual accusations, anger, and mistrust. Appreciation of cultural variations could be born out of the recognition that as human beings, the glories and failings of Asian, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Indian, Arab, Inca, European, Aztec, Mayan, . . . civilizations are all part of a common human heritage. Indeed, these geographic descriptions of civilizations are not carved in granite; they may even stand in the way of an appreciation of this heritage. In the contexts the idea of a liberal arts education and of intellectual diversity, educational institutions have an obligation to present a human perspective on history and culture. This is the diversity that should matter to educators.
*Monique Wittig, “One is not Born a Woman,” Feminist Issues, 1980, Vol. 1, p. 108.
**Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (p. 1.).
Yehudi Webster is a professor of Sociology at California State University at Los Angeles and is author of The Racialization of America. St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Against the Multicultural Agenda: A Critical Thinking Alternative. Greenwood Press, 1997.
Copyright © 2000 Yehudi O. Webster and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.