Cultural Caviar

Ungenuine Article

April 14, 2018

Multiple Pages
Ungenuine Article

Race is a subject about which we all feel slightly nervous these days, because whatever attitude you take to it, someone will call you a racist, an accusation from which no plea of innocence is allowed or believed. This is because it is almost impossible to be consistent about it; and it is why, in general, I avoid it as a subject.

We are told on the one hand that the very concept of race is an evil construction without objective validity, whose main purpose is to serve prejudice; on the other, perfectly respectable medical journals are full of papers in which race is used to categorize patients and to make epidemiological generalizations about them, for example that hypertension among blacks is relatively hard to treat, or that South Asians are highly susceptible to coronary artery disease.

Population genetics tells us that some genes are more frequently encountered in some populations than others, though of course populations meld into one another. But the fact that things are found on a continuum does not mean that there are no differences: The wavelengths of the rainbow are on a continuum, but that does not mean that red is no different from indigo or violet.

“It is difficult to escape race as a concept or accord it no importance, as we are convinced that we should do.”

In fact, it is difficult to escape race as a concept or accord it no importance, as we are convinced that we should do. Just how hard it is was illustrated for me when I picked up the Spanish liberal newspaper (liberal in the North American sense rather the economic sense) El País while waiting in an airport for a flight. There was an article in it by a Chilean who exuded both racial pride and shame.

The article included information that—assuming it to be true—was both new and interesting to me. In the past few years, Chile, whose birth rate has fallen below replacement level, like many countries in Europe, has been the destination of 150,000 Haitian migrants. They have chosen Chile because of its flourishing economy (no mention, of course, of who started the process). They work mainly in the booming agricultural sector.

According to the author, not all Chileans are happy with this, though it is an implicit compliment to their country, because they harbor racist sentiments, albeit that Chile is as far as possible from a racially pure country (if such a thing exists anywhere outside the North Korean imagination). Clearly the author thinks this is a very bad thing.

His article, however, begins as follows:

Like other Chileans, I am proud of my Mongolian spot. This is a congenital bluish mark that appears on the skin of the newborn of indigenous or Asiatic descent.

And he writes at the end of his article:

According to the geneticists my Mongolian spot, this Amerindian mark whose shadow I proudly bear on my shoulder, could also have African origins. Even better.

He is, by the way, mainly of Nordic descent. And he ends his article with a rhetorical flourish:

The indigenes [Amerindians] and Africans who dance in my blood embrace these new brothers who arrive in Chile.

This is all rather curious for someone who is writing against racism, for it implies that he welcomes the Haitians not purely as men, but because they are, or might be, related to him by race. It also implies that Amerindians have, as a race, some kind of especially warm feelings for people of African descent. I don’t know whether as a sociological generalization this is true, but if it is true, it surely would not be by virtue of the blood coursing, or even dancing, through their veins. Indeed, the very idea of thoughts or feelings being transmitted hematologically has a rather unpleasant historical connotation, of which the author, in his moral complacency, seems quite unaware.

He places human races in a hierarchy, though not the traditional one of intelligence, ranging from inferior to superior, but of victimhood. Presumably it is even better, as he puts it, to have African descent than Amerindian because Africans have been even worse used than Amerindians and are therefore even greater victims. By having black blood coursing through his veins he participates in their victimhood, which, of course, conveys upon him the moral authority of a victimized martyr, even though he may have gone to all the best schools, etc. That he is principally of Norwegian descent is, by contrast (and as a corollary), a matter of shame that besmirches anything that he may have achieved in life because his achievements must have been the product of privilege, that is to say the privilege borne in his blood.

In the times when Haiti was still a French possession, there was a table of racial descent that included 64 degrees of white purity, that is to say one black great-great-great-great-grandparent was enough to pollute your blood. The author of this article would agree with this point of view wholeheartedly, except that, of course, he would assign a different, or opposite, value to the blood that the French would have regarded as polluting. Nor will I repeat the old Southern saying about one drop of blood, a saying with which the author of this article would also agree, except that one drop of African blood in his case would wash away all his sins, rather like the waters of the Ganges at Allahabad during the Kumbh Mela.

The question of racial or national pride (or shame) is of such complexity that I prefer not to think about it, and I sweep it under my mental carpet, where so many problems belong. Most patriots, for example, are proud of the achievements of their country—usually the country of their birth—even though they personally contributed nothing to them. Such pride is not wholly to be deprecated, as it often acts as a spur to further achievement, though it can also result in condescension to or the despising of people of other nations. As to collective guilt, it can on occasion lead to a determination never to allow anyone to repeat the same heinous crime, even where the individual concerned bore no personal responsibility for it.

But the article in El País seemed to me to have the authentic ring of humbug.

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