FOR THE PAST SIX MONTHS the United States has been experiencing another of the racial fits that have recurred more or less regularly across the half-century since the civil-rights protests of the 1950’s and the Civil Rights Acts of the 60’s that abolished legally sanctioned segregation in this country. In this spasm, as in past ones, black American protesters and the representatives of various black organizations are claiming that white law, like white society broadly, continues to oppress black Americans, while progressives wonder publicly when the “problem of race” will finally be transcended in America. The answer is “Nevermore.” The “race problem,” like the “problem of poverty,” will probably be an ineradicable element of human society until the end of time.
The multiracial population of the pre-modern world made racial discord probable once the various races bumped up against one another, but the multicultural societies of postmodernity make it inevitable, by induced physical proximity and by multiculturalism’s assault on nearly every aspect of personal identity that a technological-bureaucratic-commercialist society finds unnecessary or contrary to its interests and purposes.
Though scientism denies “the reality of race,” which it views as a purely social construction, normal human perception works against its project of making race disappear. So far back as history goes, racial identity has been a fundamental component of human consciousness. In the same way that people are naturally proud of their families and of their lineage, they are inclined to honor their race and the civilization it created, and they are driven by a natural urge to defend and assert these things against other races and cultures—even, in certain circumstances, to impose them on others. When Neanderthal encountered Homo sapiens, Muslim Turk met Hindu Caucasian, Hun confronted Mediterranean man, Zulu came against Briton, American colonist collided with North American Mongol, conflict was inevitable, as much from racial antagonism as from circumstance and self-interest. Humans take an obvious pleasure from their racial consciousness, and from asserting it. The world over, modern racial demonstrations captured on film and audio show not just a collective anger and a sense of grievance but a peculiar kind of communal exaltation. Exaltation of this sort, notably absent by comparison from the Occupy Wall Street manifestations of the past couple of years, has been evident in the racial demonstrations that followed the shooting of a black thug in Missouri last year. Racial consciousness didn’t have to be “constructed” by any society; probably, it traces from the progressive biological differentiation of early man in prehistoric Africa, and the migrations from the Dark Continent into Europe and Asia. One might as well argue that sex is a social construct unknown to primitive people, who presumably considered men and women exactly the same except for certain small, nearly unnoticeable physiological differences occurring in the groin area.
Human beings are capable of a nearly infinite number of emotions, the overwhelming majority of them either positive or negative ones. Given that empirical fact and what we know of the history of the various races, tribes, and peoples of the world, we can be pretty confident that racial feelings are naturally not neutral at all but charged, and in a negative rather than in a positive way. We can be certain, too, that things were so in the premodern geographically segregated era, before unprecedented technological advances in global communications and travel made mass immigration, mass migration, and multiracial societies possible. Multiracialism encouraged multiculturalism, which requires “inclusion,” which in turn denies the reality of traditional and even biological human distinctions of any sort, while carefully distinguishing between cultures it nevertheless insists are the equals of one another—not separate-but-equal but included-though-distinct, one might say. Theoretically—insofar as there is a theory—multiculturalism leaves no intellectual ground for racialism, by giving it no space in which to survive. But theory is theory, and men and women are creatures of flesh and blood, not so easily imposed on, or for long, by the visions of theorists less grounded in reality than they are. The multiculturalists inadvertently exposed their system to a weakness they did not foresee: the natural tendency of people to cherish the differences that give them their sense of identity and security. Nor did “the people we’ve been waiting for,” as Barack Obama once described himself and his fellow progressives, understand that, by denying every human distinction, they ensure that this most visible of human distinctions, more immediately obvious even than the sexual one, would become the definitive distinction among men and women and the one on which they would insist absolutely.
The majority of people, living outside the select and relatively narrow society of the educated professional class, are healthily indifferent as a rule to the single most important distinction recognized by the otherwise inclusionary society: the difference between “expert” and “layman,” the credentialed person and the uncredentialed one. Many more locate their identity in their socioeconomic status, though probably not nearly so many as Occupy Wall Street, the editors of the New York Times, and populist politicians like Senator Warren suppose. And neither educational achievement nor economic status, unlike dimorphic sexual differentiation, is signaled by some biological characteristic. Contrary to feminist theory, not many men and women, imagining themselves ideologically and politically at war with the opposite sex, are obsessed with their sexual identity so far as to consider it the ontological ground of their existence, while the few who do—mainly homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals—are still a small minority of the general population. But racial identity carries an exterior biological signature and an interior disposition formed by both nature and nurture. In pre-1965 America, white skins were socially preferable to black, brown, red, and yellow skins, and Caucasian features to negroid, North American Mongol, and Asian ones. All of that has changed in the past half-century—so far indeed that, today, the American social, intellectual, and political elite is inclined to “privilege” (as privileged people say) the nonwhite minority over the white majority and treat it as morally superior to the rest of the country. This naturally encourages the nonwhite races to assert themselves by emphasizing the identity most obvious to themselves and everyone else, and to provoke the white race into doing the same.
Historically, ethnic politics, rivalries, and racialist demagoguery (usually ending in tyranny) have been the endemic plague of multiracial societies, less so where a single race and culture have been dominant and in full and unquestioned control, as whites were until recently in the United States. It is a measure of the historical and psychological ignorance—or dishonesty—of the American ruling class that, having deliberately transformed America from a transplanted European society to a multiracial one, it seems dismayed by the disharmony that ensued. What harm could there be (the people in charge seem to have wondered) in encouraging minority groups to indulge in chauvinistic demonstrations of their self-perceived superiority over everybody else? The therapeutic state encourages personal and group self-esteem as a means of promoting individual mental health and general social relaxation. It is blind to the fact that the obverse of one group’s self-esteem is contempt for every other group. Love of one thing very often implies dislike or even hatred for something else, and hatred can be as rewarding and actually pleasurable an emotion as love. But because these facts do not agree with the liberal concept of human nature as naturally good and benevolent, liberal society refuses to take them into account in its millennial designs. No doubt some, perhaps many, police officers dislike and suspect black people, but it is equally likely that some, perhaps many, black people dislike and suspect white people—white people in police uniform especially—and that both blacks and whites find some sustaining transcendental emotion in hating the Other. In Ferguson, whatever the element of racism involved, it was obviously present on both sides of the police lines. Certainly, it’s hard to believe that Michael Brown taunted, threatened, and attacked Officer Wilson solely because he was a specimen of generic man in uniform. Critics of mass immigration from the Third World frequently argue that multiracial society and a democratic polity are incompatible things (I have probably done so myself), yet one can argue plausibly that the two actually agree all too well. Cultural politics amounts to perhaps 70 percent of the whole of modern American political activity, and about half of that percentage is probably racially driven. No minority in the contemporary United States, racial or otherwise, goes unrepresented by some party, faction, organization, pressure group, or lobby, which often number in the dozens. It is simply a lie of the left that no voice goes unheard, no interest unsupported, in public life, especially where race is concerned. Indeed, the more admiring passages from Tocqueville’s description of the workings of American democracy two centuries ago anticipate the practice of ethnic and racial politics today—which goes to show that a healthy democratic polity owes more to content than it does to mechanism and system. Democracy has always been among other things a system of organized envy and resentment, the two elements on which racial politics is centered. Once democratic politics becomes infected by the politics of race, the second cannot be dislodged from the first. Racial politics heightens the popular experience of politics as a team sport, and with it the typically emotional, often hysterical, and sometimes violent excess that has characterized American political contests since the early 19th century.
IT’S HARD CHEESE on liberal sensibilities, but there is neither prospect nor chance of an “end to the race problem” in the United States. Almost from the beginning, America has been obsessed with race; like so many obsessions, this one has been the source of at least as much pleasure and self-assertiveness as of pain and uncertainty, as the popularity of racial demagoguery—in the Oval Office, among countless other places—proves. Race is an obsession American society cannot live without and wouldn’t, even if it could.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture FEBRUARY 02, 2015