A millennia from now, how will our descendants look at our obsession with race, identity, and the physical differences between people? For an easy answer we can look to the past. Take a moment and observe where you're standing. Think about the continent, state, or even the city you're in. Now reach back a thousand years into the past. Do you know the people who lived here? Do you know the cultural issues of the day, what was controversial, what divided people? More importantly, do you care?
The honest answer is no, no, and no. You can repeat this exercise with any civilization and any place. The Romans, Aztecs, or Chinese, it doesn't matter. The time that separates us makes their perspectives totally irrelevant to our daily lives. If we even bother to reflect on their beliefs about humanity, themselves, and others, we can't help but shake our heads. At best our ancestors seem primitive, foolish, and tragically misinformed. It's amusing to think of how much energy they spent building their empires convinced of their own superiority, for it all to crumble and be forgotten millennia later? Their civilizations are ruins for tourists to visit, and nobody gives a damn about what makes someone a true Roman.
This humbling exercise is essential to keep at the front of our minds as the culture wars rage around us. Humans one thousand years from now will view us as primitive savages obsessed with arbitrary physical features. They'll be amazed at the time, energy and resources our civilization dedicated to such trivial details.
And make no mistake, race is trivial in the long run.
Why Does Racism Exist
If race is such an obviously pointless construct, then why do we care so much about it? Ideas of race (and the racism that inevitably goes with it) are manifestations of an iron law of human nature. As a highly social species humans have a deep biological need to belong. By definition, belonging to something means not belonging to an infinite number of other things. A box is defined as much by what's inside as what's outside.
For a group to function, it needs to make its members feel superior or at least distinct from outsiders. The more effectively a group does this, the more cohesive and enduring the group will be. This leads to all forms of tribalism and is the great granddaddy of identity politics. We've been doing this since day one, and as far as evolution is concerned, that's a feature not a bug. If it weren't for our willingness to form exclusive groups, we wouldn't be able to cooperate and build civilizations. We wouldn't be human.
Racism comes from this ancient mechanism. The same instinct gives you pride in your country, makes you cheer for a sports team, and makes you hate your political rivals. It's the love of people like you and the dislike of outsiders. In its mild form its the twinge of pleasure you feel when you see someone in your rival tribe fail. In its extreme form, it's murder, war, and genocide. Unfortunately, as long as we're genetically human, we'll have to deal with this delicate balance.
Another important thing to remember is that all humans are primed to be racist. Every civilization has believed that its people were superior, its laws more just, and its achievements grander than all others. Your's is no exception.
Modern racism, as defined by "white supremacy" came about only because Europe happened to dominate the world for the past few centuries. If things had happened a little differently, it could easily have been Han or Aztec supremacy that we are talking about.
Its main functions were:
- To justify the timeless and universal practice of slavery.
- To justify colonialism.
Coincidentally Europe's dominance came at a time of rapid technological advances, allowing the European version of racism (white supremacy) to spread and become deeply entrenched.
Racism was first and foremost, a tool to help pacify European Christian consciences, and justify lucrative, but morally wrong practices. Once these institutions were abolished, the idea of racism stuck around because people drank the Kool Aide for too long. Today the economic drivers of racism are long dead. What we're dealing with is a racism hangover.
Plenty has been written on the subject, but this is the simple version of how we got here. Coincidences, technology and human nature created racism as we know it today. But the bigger question is how do we cope with the human instincts that gave rise to racism in the first place.
Ending the Concept of Race
The uncomfortable reality is that racism will not end until we end the concept of race. We already know that humans will always form ingroups and outgroups. There's not a single person alive who doesn't belong to a tribe, no matter how enlightened you think you are! We also know that there's a productive and healthy way to do this. Sports teams, private clubs, and trendy diets are far more useful (not to mention ethical) ways of dealing with our tribal instincts.
We already know that race is an artificial, useless construct cooked up by a bunch of hypocritical Christians centuries ago. It was made by people and can be unmade by people. So getting rid of race should be easy right?
Tragically no. It seems we're moving in the opposite direction (at least in the English speaking West). Despite rising equality and diversity, the US is arguably as race obsessed as it's ever been. Part of this is due to the deep entrenchment of race as a concept in the Western psyche. However, our lack of progress towards post racialism is mostly the result of two distinct groups fighting for a race based world view.
The first, older group is the actual racists. Contrary to popular belief, this group is not nearly as large as it used to be. While their will always be faux pas among cultural and ethnic groups, overt racial bigotry has plummeted for decades now. Of course, there are still plenty of bona fide racists out there, and they're very loud. Despite that fact, displaying overt racism is generally considered a career destroyer in respectable society, especially white supremacy.
Important side note: It's worth mentioning that in the Western context we're talking about white supremacy, but as other cultures (ex. Han Chinese) become more dominant globally, their racial prejudices will become increasingly influential. But that's a subject for another article.
Either way, people who actively believe in their racial supremacy have a vested interest in talking about, maintaining, and controlling racial narratives. Dealing with these people is always difficult, but there are many people, dedicated to changing hearts and minds. Contrary to progressive doctrine, you can't "fight" racism. You need to disarm, persuade and transform it. Convincing racists to change their beliefs is a herculean challenge, but we've been doing it since before the abolition of slavery. While it will take a while, it's absolutely possible.
The second group is far more difficult to deal with, because in theory they're coming from a good place. I'm talking of course about progressives. You could argue that as far as influence goes, the progressive left's power in cultural, educational, nonprofit, government, media, and corporate institutions dwarfs that of real bigots. A backwards cop in small town Alabama is basically irrelevant when compared to fortune 500 CEO. If you're seeking a post racial world, then the prime opposition is actually coming from progressives.
Progressives have totally given up on the very idea of post racialism, and instead embraced an odd mishmash of Marxism, critical theory, racial absolutism, and more Orwellian tropes than I can count . To them, race (and racism) even if socially constructed, are ever present. More importantly they consider race as the prime driver of all inequity in society. To try and ignore race or dare to decenter it, is actually an exercise in white supremacy.
Their solution is to embrace race in all things. Progressive orthodoxy constantly highlights the differences between people no matter how small, and encourages us to form our identities around them. Progressives generalize people into groups, and people to view every misfortune or benefit that comes our way as directly tied to race. If this wasn't bad enough, they actively incentivize identifying strongly with your race. Cultural pressure to conform to racial stereotypes is one way, but real material incentives are their most powerful tool. Opting out of whiteness will in many instances mean preferential treatment in progressive institutions (which at this point is a majority of mainstream institutions). Even people who don't by into the orthodoxy would be foolish not to play along. You will first be judged by the color of your skin, and if you're lucky, your character may be an afterthought.
To be fair, racism is still an active force in our world, which means there are strong incentives for victims to band together for mutual protection. Centuries of oppression in the US has helped form a unique identity for many "nonwhite" Americans. Attacking the concept of race is seen as synonymous with attacking this culture. Which is why there's so much conflict and mistrust when people suggest that race is not important.
Even if everyone was down wit destroying race, the results would make a lot of people hesitant. To end the concept of race would mean massive cultural changes. All humans would be entitled to all culture, which comes with plenty of perils. We'd have to give up our unique claims to our culture, and embrace a radical remixing. In the long run this would create an amazing flourishing of fertile new ideas and cultures, but in the short run it would mean black people singing Irish folk songs and white people rapping in dreadlocks. If that image makes you uncomfortable, you can see that we have a long way to go.
The more cynical reason people oppose eliminating race is that it would threaten their purpose in life. Obviously real racists would not be happy, but they're in the minority. Millions of writers, artists, activists, ethnic studies professors, sociologist, psychologists, DEI consultants, politicians, and nonprofit administrators would be out of a job. Their entire life's work would be rendered invalid at best, and possibly actively harmful. The threat of losing your life's meaning, your livelihood, and your community sure sets up a great conflict of interests.
We also can't ignore the very real chicken and egg problem. If racism exists, than ignoring race will harm victims of racism. On the other hand, as long as race is the primary way we identify ourselves, it will be impossible for racism to end. So where do we go from here?
Ending Race in the Short and Long Run
Ending race will be a multi-generational, probably centuries long project. The good news is that although the present seems bleak, the trends are on the side of the post racialist.
In the short run, changing demographics are doing a lot of the work for us. In the US, the share of multiracial people is exploding. Unprecedented ease of travel and growing economic prosperity worldwide means this mixing is likely to increase. Imagine how preposterous the idea of race will seem when most people's ancestors come from 10+ ethnicities.
At the same time, the rise of the internet has taken a sledgehammer to rigid cultural categories. While the loss of local languages and cultures is tragic, there is a massive silver lining. A growing international culture means that it's easier then ever to understand that we're all essentially identical humans. As billions of people come online in the next few decades this process will accelerate dramatically.
In the medium and long term the really fun stuff starts to happen. One of the most interesting things about humans is how obsessed we get about little cultural details, while ignoring the big changes coming from emerging technologies. What will happen to race when we colonize our solar system, or if our new space telescopes discover alien life? For that matter what happens to race when radical human genetic engineering is adopted at scale? These technologies are coming faster than you think, and will likely make this entire debate irrelevant.
Talking about aliens in an article on race may seem strange, but it brings us right back to the beginning. In a thousand years, the culture wars raging in a few countries on a planet of eight billion people will seem trivial. This makes sense because they are. If anyone even talks about us, they will laugh at how we were so blind to the future, and instead clung to foolish remnants of a barbaric past.
In time, race will go the way of the dinosaur. But you and I don't want to wait a thousand years to see it. We know where the stupid idea of race comes from, we know who wants to keep it around, and we know where it's going. For those of us living in the present, we can help it along.
What can we do?
Always zoom out and keep things in context. This takes the sting out of the culture wars.
Acknowledge that tribalism is as human as walking on two legs. As long as we're human and we invent a group, people will obsess over it. This doesn't mean its OK, but it's reality. Remembering this eliminates the moralism present in discourse on the past.
Embrace individualism! You are one of 8 billion or one of one. This saps power from our instinct to form tribes. If we must form groups, they should be based on things we choose, and as far away from immutable characteristics as possible.
Finally we must accept that none of these solutions are perfect, and that there's no such thing as utopia. Transitioning to a post racial world means some victims past and present won't get justice. It means that some assimilation and cultural destruction will happen. Lets be honest and open about this. But we shouldn't be afraid to champion the benefits. If want to advance as a culture and as a species, the concept of race needs to die.
A post racial world is coming one way or another. By actively helping it along we can avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering and conflict. To choose post racialism is to walk away from our base animal instincts, and towards a better, more human world.