(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
We all know of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. In it, he spoke the famous line, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Implicitly, Dr. King spoke to a larger truth – one that has only recently been proven. Racial distinctions between people are founded on external differences in appearance, and NOT on science. There are zero genetic markers that distinguish one so-called “race” from another. Indeed, in a 2002 landmark genetic mapping of world-wide human DNA, it was proven that every person shares 99.9% of genes. Of the .1% different genes, none relate to supposedly racial identity features.
What this means is what people have anecdotally asserted for a long time. Beneath our skin and external features, people are virtually the same. We are all members of one human family, one human species.
Since that has been verifiably proven, does it mean the concept of race does not exist? Ta-Nehisi Coates answers that question in his book Between the World and Me on page 7. He writes, “Race is the child of racism, NOT the father.”
In other words, race exists but only as an idea. Race was created about five hundred years ago because people chose to determine differences between one another in order for group sought to dominate, hate and oppress other groups. That group, people of light skin color living in Europe, defined five races based on differences in external appearance. Hate essentially gave birth to the idea of race.
Coates goes on to say, “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopefully, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Coates writes about me and most of you. I am white only because I have accepted notions I have been taught by culture and society – that certain external features of mine, like my skin, hair or eye color, make me “white”. Humanity has bought into the false notion of race based solely on appearance. Genetics, however, have proven something very different. There are no subgroups or divisions within the human species. We are all the same.
I hope to frame today’s discussion around this fact – one which I trust you will accept as true. I ask you to accept this fact because it is the foundation of Coates’ central argument. Race is a way we organize society so that those who call and believe themselves to be white can dominate. Race is a subjective, social distinction rooted in the age-old human propensity to elevate oneself, or one’s tribe, at the expense of another.
The idea of race is a self-oriented, dog-eat-dog, me first way of thinking. I must separate myself from others, and believe myself to be better, in order to look out just for myself, my family, and my group. In order for me to survive and thrive, I must diminish all others. Racism is, in truth, selfishness and greed run amok.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, like most other writers and experts, does not claim that racial classification is something any of us are responsible for creating. It began hundreds of years ago when colonialism started. In order to control new lands and their valuable resources, Europeans realized the people of those lands needed to be controlled. The idea of race was created to do just that.
Our problem today is that we were born into a culture that still uses ideas of race to define people. From our earliest years, we are taught about the subjective differences between people. We are also taught that our so called white group is dominant and superior. Such false teachings are grounded not in science, but in opinion.
We are taught to perceive what anthropologists now call “race indicators” – those features of skin color and face used to separate humans into five divisions – caucasian, negro, polynesian, indigenous American, and asian. But, as modern genetics has proven, “race indicators” are subjective. They cannot genetically be linked to any particular group or population.
Take a look at this slide of two persons – a woman who appears to be “black” even though she was born to two “white” parents, and a man who appears to be white even though he was born to two “black” parents. When each of us look at these pictures, without reading facts about the persons, we immediately assume them to be part of a racial group based solely on race indicators we have been taught to associate only with a certain race. As we see, those are often false indicators.
This is the essential truth Coates wants to teach his son in his book. Race is a way for white people to control others. Bigotry towards those who appear different gave birth to the idea of race. As Coates writes, racism fathered the idea of race. Nature did not create different races. We did.
For us as people called ‘white’, we are not the victims of racial identity. We are the beneficiaries. Because our culture defines us as ‘white’, we have access to better neighborhoods, better schools, better paying jobs, and a life free from injustice. We are shielded from unjust suspicion or incarceration by the criminal justice system. We are shielded from unequal treatment anywhere we go. We have access to better health care and we live longer as a result. We are free from fear that we will be bodily harmed because of our defined race.
Most whites – including myself – are therefore blind to racism because we do not experience it. This obstacle to our awakening is, as I said last Sunday, because we are mostly empathy deficient. Since we don’t experience racial discrimination, we mostlly do not think about it or understand it.
I said last week that I offer no solutions to racism. But I will offer what Coates implies in Between the World and Me what those who believe they are white could do…
First, so called whites should, as many blacks say, be “woke”. We must awaken to the fact that the idea of race is a social and cultural construct – not a genetic one.
Second, whites should admit the reasons why separation into different races began hundreds of years ago – and why it continues. Race as an idea was created, and it continues, so that whites can dominate and prosper while other groups – blacks, Asians, indigenous peoples – are marginalized.
Third, and most important, whites should empathize and identify with black suffering, anger and frustration. We must purposefully learn to feel what they feel, and why they feel it.
Fourth, we as whites should work to end all forms of brutality and discrimination inflicted on others based on the false idea of race. We must end the fear for their bodies, as Coates says, that we cause.
Fifth, white people should accept that, as a part of the dominant group, we enjoy unequal privileges. As a popular black phrase goes, whites must “check their privilege.” That means we should identify, acknowledge and then end the unequal privileges we receive.
If you have read even part of Between the World and Me, you know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has little hope these steps will be taken. He ultimately has no hope in ending racism because much of history has shown humanity is a nasty, selfish and brutish species. People would rather compete against, demean and harm one another – all in the false belief that survival of the strongest is the only way to live.
While Coates’ pessimism is understandable, and held by many others, it is a viewpoint that reduces all people to their lowest behaviors. Any sense of spirituality, any sense that each person lives for a higher purpose beyond their own selfish needs, tells us that people can learn from, understand, listen to, and cooperate with one another. Instead of life being a win – lose proposition, life can become a win – win for everyone.
Every spiritual prophet of history understood this. As a species, humans aspire to noble and universal ideals – that everyone deserves a life of well-being, equality, freedom and, above all, love. These are the things that unite and motivate us all. For me, I pray for myself and all who believe they are white, that we commit to change our minds, hearts and souls. Those who think they are white must endeavor to build a world with equal peace and joy for the entire human family.