The concept that man exists as separate races has been scientifically discredited. Modern man, regardless of color and ethnicity, is but one human race with diversity that had its origins in Africa. Factors including America’s geographic isolation and fundamentalist beliefs such as the literal interpretation of spontaneous creation have contributed to the existing social and political issue of race in this country. The author contends that racial prejudice is being reinforced in America because, in part, it is useful as a segment of the population that can be manipulated, even preyed upon, for political and ultimately financial gain. The ‘real America’ showed up on the Mall for this year’s presidential inauguration.
During his candidacy and following the election of President Obama, public and media behavior has intensified the vexing issue of race in America. Racial prejudice still exists in a segment, but I believe an increasingly smaller segment, of our society. It would be hypocrisy to deny this. How many of our presidents have had the validity of their citizenship questioned? The Birther movement is but thinly veiled racist behavior. Racial bigotry was blatantly on display by citizens attending political rallies during the recent presidential race and captured on video. It was a savvy move by president Obama and his administration to downplay the matter and take the high ground by focusing on philosophical differences between the parties on issues such as healthcare. However, this re-emergence of the race issue is perhaps a blessing in disguise as today, more than ever, it can be revealed for what it is – ignorant behavior and irrational fear that has been, regrettably, manipulated for political and financial gain.
One Human Race Out of Africa
What has changed since the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and I was a ‘child of the 60’s’, is that we now know that the concept of separate races no longer exists from a scientific perspective. It remains as a social and political issue that was founded through centuries of ignorant beliefs. We are, simply put, one human race with diversity, not different races of human beings. It is diversity that can strengthen us and cultural diversity enriches our lives. Regrettably there are those who only see the smaller differences between us rather than understanding that indeed we are more similar than we are different.
Over the years many ethicists, social and political leaders, citizens and authors including Mark Twain, whom I shall quote on occasion in this article, have understood the cruelty, unfairness and damage that racial prejudice and hatred causes. However, what put a stake into the heart of the concept that separate human races exist (18th Century race biology) was our successful mapping of the human genome. A finding of the Human Genome Project was “DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspeicies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another….no allele (gene) will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.” Simply put we are one human race with diversity, not different races of human beings.
A comical irony of racist behavior is that multiple lines of evidence support that modern man has an African origin; yes, of all colors. Modern day human beings (Homo sapiens) evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and began migrating from Africa some 50,000 – 100,000 years back to populate Europe and Asia while replacing earlier homonids. So those who carry racial prejudice must realize that they themselves are also of African descent; their ancestors simply acquired characteristics through selection processes, most likely both natural and man-made, in northern climates prior to making their way to North America. The individuals who carry placards at rallies akin to Send Obama Back to Africa could very well apply that same sentiment to themselves.
Spontaneous Creation versus Physical Diversity
Let me begin this section by saying that religion is an important expression of our spiritualism and that faith gives both strength and comfort to believers. But religion throughout history has proven time and again to be unreliable in explaining our physical world. The literal interpretation of the spontaneous creation of a single man and a woman from his rib as the start of our human race (a closely held belief of the fundamentalist Christian right), portrayed as a fair skinned couple in illustrated Christian bibles, is hard pressed to explain the diversity we see amongst human beings. Some damaging rationalizations have been put forth in years past. For example, our dark skinned citizens are not the descendants of Cain whose skin was stained black as punishment for his sin (‘The Mark Of Cain’ – our Native Americans have also fallen prey to such damaging nonsense) as was put forth by some fundamentalist zealots.
Earth is color banded with darker skinned individuals having been concentrated in equatorial regions and skin tones becoming lighter as we move towards the poles on this planet because of the effects of the sun and the Darwinian principle of natural selection (the primary explanation of adaptive evolution). One has only to examine the rapid development of pre-cancerous and cancerous skin lesions in fair skinned individuals who were transported to areas having stronger sun exposure; eg British prisoners that were relocated to Australia. The natural selection of skin color for survival has been supplanted in modern times by improvements in nutrition, protective drugs and preventative medicine that now allow us to enjoy long lives in all parts of the world regardless of skin color. Today we are simply witness to this aspect of our physical diversity that played a role in our survival as a species.
America’s Geographic Isolation and Race
Mark Twain once said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth”. Indeed part of the issue with racial prejudice in our country has been America’s isolation. In my teaching of leadership practices I reference Stephen Covey who contends that there are universal principles that are a part of the human condition and human conscience. These principles exist in every culture, are part of every major enduring religion and include such things as fairness, integrity, human dignity, potential, growth, and nurturance. In my travels both at home and abroad I have come to learn that is indeed the case amongst reasonable people of all cultures.
The damage that hundreds of years of racial prejudice has caused in this country can not be quickly undone. That is why diversity programs are so important to our children. Education is not just about what is contained in a book. It includes learning about mankind and that is best done through exposure where we get to know one another. This is especially important as our children will be competing in increasingly competitive and highly diversified global markets. A diverse socialization process is important to achieving effective interactions across cultures.
The Manipulation of Racial Prejudice and Hatred for Political and Financial Gain
Many of those who harbor racial prejudice and hatred should realize that they have been badly manipulated, used, even preyed upon for political and ultimately financial gain; and they need to know that. The matter reminds me of the actor Sean Penn in the movie All the Kings Men, where in the role of Willie Stark (a gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana) he gave an impassioned speech to a crowd of the working class, telling them that they have simply been viewed and used as ‘hicks’ to the benefit of those in power.
The prominent talk show host and voice of the conservative movement, Rush Limbaugh, inarguably manipulates racial prejudice. He has a long history of issuing racially insensitive, offensive and off-the-wall comments over the air; a few examples follow. He once told a black female caller to phone back after she removed the bone from her nose. He has referred to Barack Obama and Halle Berry, both having a white mother and a black father, as being Halfrican Americans (which half isn’t American?). He has played a musical piece on his show entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” – a Jim Crow era term that just isn’t used any longer. And the list goes on. The language is divisive and destructive. It tears at the very fabric of our diversified society and mocks the principles enumerated in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution (that he misquoted while being carried nationally on TV at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC). His behavior stokes the fire of intolerant behavior, reinforces ignorant beliefs and works to divide our nation. And it is frankly dangerous as there is a fringe population that has shown the capacity to take lives in hate crimes or engage in some senseless act of violence in the name of patriotism.
Mr. Limbaugh is more than just an entertainer or political shock jock as some have contended. He is a formidable tool of the conservative movement and he carries political clout. Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-Ga) and RNC chair Michael Steele were quick to issue public apologies when Mr. Limbaugh felt offended by their comments. And Mr. Limbaugh was a featured speaker at this years CPAC that included many prominent Republican figures. Mr. Limbaugh’s purpose? Why should it be different from most things involving politics: power and money. He stokes up elements of the conservative base and drives them to the poll to pull the lever for a party whose economic policies have little benefit to the middle class and the poor (segments of both encompass much of his following) but favor corporations and the most wealthy which, by the way, includes Mr. Limbaugh himself with his multi-million dollar income (reference my article on Supply-side Tax Cut Legislation).
And it is not just Mr. Limbaugh who engages in these tactics. Glenn Beck (Fox News) played to the irrational fears associated with racial bigotry when he said that president Obama had a deep seated hatred of white people or the white culture; numerous of his sponsors have left his show following these comments. It would be hypocritical of the conservative movement to deny its involvement in propagating and manipulating racial prejudice for political gain when they have embraced rather than rejected these tactics.
One of Mark Twain’s last works is entitled “The Damned Human Race” and is taken from Letters from the Earth. It is a somewhat dark and satirical work. He contends that Darwin had it all wrong and that man did not ascend from the lower animals. Rather, because of mankind’s uniquely destructive behavior in the animal world and having the moral sense to know better, Twain renounced the Darwinian theory in favor a new theory entitled The Descent of Man from the Higher Animals. The work concludes with the following: “And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor (some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance) insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirch less innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development (namable as the Human Being). Below us, nothing”. Indeed appropriate sentiments for those who prey upon ignorance for gain and those who engage in destructive behavior to their fellow men.
Concluding Remarks: The Real America
During last year’s presidential campaigning there was conservative dialogue about the ‘real America’. The real America showed up on the Mall for president Obama’s inauguration. It was a garment having a fabric of many colors that covered the Mall that day. It was the great melting pot of our society that has defined America throughout its history and showed the world that all individuals can, and indeed have the right to, succeed. The words inscribed on our Statue of Liberty were tangible that day: “Give my your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” It was, simply put, one human race with diversity that has been ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. And those final words, Mr. Limbaugh, come from our Declaration of Independence, not the preamble to our Constitution.
1. Boy, Oh, Boy: Maureen Dowd, NY Times, September 12, 2009
2. Human Genome Project Information; Minorities, Race, and Genomics
4. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey, 1989 (book can be obtained or ordered both on-line and in stores; multiple summaries can be found on-line).
5. Fears of a Clown: Timothy Egan, NY Times, March 4, 2009