I recently posted an article on why I thought that George Zimmerman was not racially motivated in the Trayvon Martin shooting. I added that pretty much everything that has transpired after the shooting has been racially motivated. Americans are obsessed with race.
Of course, a number of comments started flooding in on the article, saying things like “Don’t call ’Merica racist. I’m not a racist. Black people are the real racists.” And things of that sort. All of which comments only serve to reinforce racial divisions.
But the whole imbroglio over the Zimmerman trial does raise some important questions. What is racism? Is it racist to make racial distinctions? Is it racist to identify more easily with people of your own race and culture? Is it racist to make general comments about what you think constitutes the typical behaviors or attitudes of another race? What is the relationship of race and culture?
First, what is racism? The Oxford dictionary defines it like this: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Okay. So what is race? There are two ways of approaching race, and both have implications on racism. Both definitions are in the dictionary:
- “Each of the major [biological] divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.”
- “A group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group.”
I hope you can see immediately that the definition you choose for race will have a profound impact on what constitutes “racism.” If race is defined biologically, then physical distinctions like color become all important dividers. If race is defined culturally, however, then all Americans with the same culture, history, and language are of the same race. That would mean most of us, actually, regardless of skin color.
But what we have in America is also a unique case, since the cultures have diverged in accordance to biology, sometimes forcibly so. In other words, in America, we don’t just have black, red, brown, white, and yellow skin. We also have black, red, brown, white, and yellow culture. So biological racism and segregation by color have actually given birth to cultural distinctions that might not have existed otherwise.
Racial distinctions based on skin color are illegitimate. Choosing a biological rather than a cultural definition of race is neither scientifically tenable nor socially constructive. The drive toward a biological distinction of the races was not fully realized until after The Origin of the Species became popularly accepted. In many ways, Darwinism is directly responsible for both the biological division of race and the modern incarnations of biological racism. More on that here.
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