What is Racism: Reflections as if Students Matter

As the title of these remarks indicates, we take off from the Socratic “what is” question.  The issue at hand regards events, which as usual at Trinity, have eventuated in had a one-sided monologue, especially since this summer. What is the essence of the thing being discussed, in this case racism?  How does a thoughtful person, as opposed to a committed ideologue, begin to answer this question?  I address my remarks here primarily to the students, whose minds are still potentially open.  Keeping minds open is the primary task of a genuine teacher and of the education students should all desire to receive.

Racism is a human phenomenon.  It has always been with us.  Therefore, it must be deeply rooted in human nature.  And hence as is always true of Socratic questioning, one question leads to another:  “what is human nature”?  We are natural beings, and like everything else in the cosmos, we consist of bodies and are moved by various material forces, in our case, many of them simply genetic.  But unlike everything else in the cosmos, we reflect on the nature of the cosmos and our own nature.  And those reflections can change the world we live in—in some mysterious fashion that itself needs to be studied and explained.

As a result of the previous point, we humans are also historical beings.  There is a reason no one studies the history of beaver architecture or the history of the social relations of lions.  These are not historical beings.  We thinking beings are unlike any other beings in the natural whole in that we are capable of living under different social and moral circumstances and we have something to do with those circumstances coming to be and passing away.  This uniqueness is both the greatness of humanity and its greatest danger—for history teaches that we fail more often than we succeed in creating our institutions.  I am sorry to report that I am certain that this reality of both success and failure will always be our lot as human beings.

What are the faculties that allow human beings to be so different than anything else within the natural whole?  To start with, we have five senses; admittedly we share this with most animals.  But our senses are dependent on speech in ways that make us distinctive.  This is an issue you could spend your entire four years studying, indeed your entire life.  We will have to rely on one small example.  Given our natures, and our memory capacity, we could not walk into a forest and give a proper name to every tree.  Language would reduce to an almost infinite number of nouns and no one could remember them all.  Hence we group together things that have the same surface look: trees, shrubs, dogs, cats.  We have no choice in this linguistic abbreviation given the kinds of beings we are who have limited memories and must converse with each other in an efficient fashion just to live.

On a basic level, language consists of grouping many particulars under general concepts or “universals.”  We have for thousands of years debated whether those universals are eternal and transcendent, or changeable and based on mere human conventions.  I am confident that debate will never be definitively resolved.  The point is that even in conceptual thought—which seems to transcend the senses—at the deepest level we are radically dependent upon the senses. In our desire to access and know our world, we rely especially on our eyes.   But to a lesser extent we are dependent upon the ears—for example, there are multiple languages and even dialects.   And then our other senses give us access to the world in a descending order—with taste being of limited help in our desire to access and know our world.

In every instance, processing the data of the senses leads us necessarily toward grouping a many under a one, for mere efficiency if nothing else.  But this necessity can also mislead us into believing that these sensually dependent groupings, these manifestations of difference, grasp important rather than superficial, surface differences.

We are now in the vicinity of being able to give a first, provisional explanation of why racism is rooted in human nature.  We are beings determined by our senses, which give us access only to the outer look or external manifestation of things—in the process we tend to treat superficial differences as essential.  Just as we quickly understand upon reflection that every tree is distinctly different, despite the shared word tree, we discover that despite the similar external looks of various human beings, as individuals we essentially differ considerably.  But it is not the senses that give us access to this essence of our individuality.  It is reason and reflection.  We may, if dominated only by our senses, group people together by race and treat them all the same, but when we “look” only slightly below the surface, we see how different individuals really are.

Racism is rooted in human nature.  The cure for the illness is also rooted in human nature.  As individuals we need to develop our reason, the ability to grasp what is essential in human existence, in ourselves and in other individuals.  That essential difference will be found beyond the surface grasped by the senses.  If we quit the cultivation of reason, categorized by some as a clever trick of domination, we have lost the only tool we have to overcome racism.

If we initially group individuals by any of their superficial, surface looks—albeit for present purposes let us limit ourselves to race—we will always miss what is essential.  Below the surface the interesting fact is that individuals group themselves according to their natures and aspirations.  Some are musical, some competitive and love sports, some love abstract thought, some are pious and pursue the immortality of the soul, some love painting, religion, dance, languages, micro-biology, natural eco-systems, the nature of black holes.  Actual individuals sort themselves out into these genuinely interesting groups.  And given a chance, similar individuals will find each other.  By cultivating reason we give ourselves this chance; and that should be at the core of a genuine liberal and liberating education.

But before individuals can discover others like themselves, they must discover themselves as individuals, and this is an entirely different undertaking than inventing oneself out of thin air—also known as “self-identifying.”  All true culture, from farming to educating individuals, rests on the cultivation and perfection of an underlying nature that would not develop and come to perfection unaided.  But in the case of human beings, our underlying nature means multiple distinctive natures as suggested above.  And those natures transcend race.  Those individual natures need to be discovered through experience and reflection.  And that is what should be aided and assisted by a genuine liberal arts education.

The solution to racism lies in the core American and Western commitment to the freedom of sovereign individuals to find themselves and follow their distinctive natural muses.  And recognizing that core premise of individualism was the genius of Martin Luther King, who crystallized the thinking of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.  King’s “dream” was that everyone be judged by the quality of their souls, and not the color of their skin. For further and more elaborate reflections on King go to my remarks at the Churchill Institute webpage (thecinst.org) under “news.”  King’s vision is one that can bring us together.  Our new “Diversity” approach to race has led us away from those principles and into the lap of an all too divisive and hatful new permutation of racism.

Let me very briefly deal with that last premise by reference to two recent events.  President Trump’s disappointing slide into a moral equivalency argument in response to events in Charlottesville is a case in point.  By failing to call out racist behavior and views for precisely what they are, and pointing instead to how the left was in its own way equally to blame, the President gave a patina of respectability to hateful views and behaviors that are totally un-American.  The real white supremacists of the Alt-Right assign virtue to one racial group and various forms of vice and insufficiency to all individuals in other groups.  It is precisely this un-American refusal to treat sovereign individuals as individuals that is at the basis of their hate and racism.  And it should be denounced in no uncertain terms even if it hadn’t eventuated in a descent into violence.  That there are other evils in the world in no way mitigates the evil of these views and the President erred in not making that clear.

Then there is also the fiasco that swirled around one of our own Trinity Professors this summer which has been so devastating to the financial future of the College.  But it is the moral future of the College that is primarily at stake.   I cannot bring myself to repeat the words that this apparently hate-filled Professor endorsed.  Those words are vile, divisive and racist.  To fail to state that clearly is to have no moral compass whatsoever.  The understanding that asserts that every individual in a group is racist by birth—in the case of the Trinity Professor in question the group is whites—is the same underlying premise used by the real white supremacists.  It is to treat individuals as group members and vilify the entire group and therewith all sovereign individuals in those groups.

What is so morally obtuse in what has transpired is that the Administration of Trinity College, and the majority of its faculty, far from expressing their clear outrage at obviously hateful and racist sentiments, have actually apologized to the offending Professor, turned him into a hero, and then recently given him a platform to speak on campus.  This has been followed up by more faculty panels purporting to offer a “dialogue about race,” which are nothing but part of the monolithic choir singing to each other that has come to dominate the intellectual environment at Trinity.  This behavior of appeasement is to give the same inappropriate imprimatur of respectability to hateful views in the same way that President Trump gave to actual white supremacists.  This alt-left racism and fascism can be dressed up with all the sociological neologisms, barbarisms and obscurantism possible, but lipstick will never beautify this pig.

In his triumphant public return, the Professor who set Trinity afire this summer, again assured us that all whites are racists.  We did learn from the recent public homecoming, I am told, that the phrase “white privilege” is identical in meaning to “white supremacist.”  This picture of white supremacy is presented as something gained by birth, and apparently something one cannot transcend without an ongoing chorus of mea culpas delivered to Diversity priests.  The softer version of this position is based on the argument that the “society” is racist.  But as any thinking being would know, an abstraction like “society” cannot act because it is mythical to anthropomorphize something other than an individual human being.

The responses I have heard from many students to the latest presentation of racism we have been discussing include “Whatever” and “I just want to get out of here.”  And once they graduate, they will give no further thought to Trinity College, nor should they.  For they will have had an indoctrination substituted for a genuinely liberating, liberal arts education.  They will have endured rather than being fructified and elevated.

The diversity, alt-Left mantra on racism, of which we have heard all too much since this summer, is just the tip of the iceberg, it has created a monologue at Trinity, with an echo chamber that has made its participants tone-deaf to the larger society.  The nonsense and absurdity about white supremacy, as if nothing has changed in America in the last fifty years or since the heyday of Jim Crow in the South, is increasingly met in the larger society with dismissive anger.  The majority appears to be saying, “Okay, you win. I am a racist.”  “A curse on your house; I no longer care.”  “You hate me and you hate American society; you have completely lost me.”

In the process the moral sensibilities that are needed to fight real racism and white supremacist fascism are dulled and numbed.  And the real white supremacists are emboldened to come out of their warrens and presume to speak for more than their distinctive one percent.  In the process, the majority of Americans are stuck in the crossfire between the Diversity Alt-Left and the Nazi Alt-Right.  And the two will simply feed off of and reinforce each other.  It is time for the sensible middle to stand up and say enough to our racists and fascists of the right and left.

This is an absolutely disgusting situation to be in where common sense has been neutered by extreme ideologies.  In this trying moment, let me share my prayer and hope for all of our students.  You have four years of extraordinary opportunity as a college student; you are blessed in that regard. Few of your fellow citizens have this opportunity.  You have the leisure for self-discovery and thought you may not have again for decades.  Use these years to discover who you are as an individual.  And look for like-minded spirits; I assure you they are all around you regardless of race, class, gender or sexuality.  And you will also find like-minded spirits littered throughout human history if only you look and find a guide to help your seeking.  Don’t let anyone give you spurious reasons to dismiss large segments of your species, both living and dead, because they belong to some group that can be stereotyped, stigmatized and dismissed with a nonchalant, unthinking wave of a hand.

As you pursue your education and self-discovery, there will be landmines all around you.  They are all manufactured by the corporation called GROUPTHINK.  This situation will require some courage to navigate, but for the sake of discovering your selves and like-minded others, question the dogmas of your professors, especially the dominant dogmas at Trinity.  When ideological premises are put forward as “truths,” ask the questions, “How do you know?” “What counts as a foundation for your assertion?”  “What counts as knowledge in your understanding?”  “In concrete terms, what is your vision of the good life?” And always ask and wonder, “What are the alternate opinions”?  For as has always been true, only by questioning reigning views can you find the most consistent and clearest opinions, and perhaps thereby come within the vicinity of actual truth.  And please don’t fall for the old nonsense that “there is no truth,” for that is obviously being asserted as a truth. What is the point of an education if nothing is true? Never trust snake oil salesmen or a person who tries to sell you a $25 Rolex.

As you strive to discover yourself and kindred spirits, I offer a small experiment.  This falls under a paraphrase of the oath attributed to Hippocrates, the hero of all doctors:  try to find a cure, but at least do no harm.  I can’t promise you this will solve all problems, but I can assure you it will do no harm.  As you walk about campus, rather than being closed off, looking at the ground, or some electronic device, as if no one else existed on the planet, make eye contact and acknowledge the existence of other individuals as individuals regardless of whatever group you might think they belong to upon surface inspection.  A nod, a half smile, a gesture, a phrase like “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” or even, if you must, “Hey dude” might seem like mere conventionality or cliché, but these civilities actually convey the acknowledgment of another person as a sovereign individual, while simultaneously asserting your determination to be open to others. This acknowledgment of each other as individuals is as good a first step toward overcoming racism as I can think of at the moment, and it requires little investment on your part.  There is truth in the old adage that even the longest journeys begin with a single step.