Race and Civil Society
There is no scientific basis for the social construction of race. Differences based on phenotype are untenable. Increasingly, there is evidence that there are more similarities between human beings then there are differences. Such recognition makes notions of superiority based on skin color absurd. Nonetheless, the hierarchy of social, political, and economic status rests on the fiction that some human beings are inferior to others. Often the status of one group over another is based upon violent domination and a perverse conception of civil society.
Savages, heathens, non-believers, docile, barbarians, ignorant are some of the descriptors used to describe strangers—persons whose physical appearance is different from one’s self. The fear of strangers often fueled the impulse to dominate or subject others to genocide. All such violence against others appears to be intent on preserving a narrow view of civilization. Somehow those that appear to be different will taint the purity of our religion, women, children, culture, traditions, or community. The historic record, since the 17th century, reveals a narrative that race is only one of the justifications for persecuting others. Regrettably, it is a dominant theme in the American experience since the beginning of the republic. Enslaving African workers to build the new nation state based on notions of superiority is a national stain that will not go away. Nor should it, else we forget and repeat the legacy.
And, the legacy of enslaved Africans constantly reminds us that civil society has been a refuge for the privileged despite the aspirations of our democratic republic.
The irony is that persons escaping tyranny and persecution founded the new nation state. And immediately, the immigrants began terrorizing the inhabitants of North America. Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears is one example, among many, of the persecution of the Cheyenne and Native American communities. The relocation policy bordered on genocide and totally contradicts any principles of civil society.
The persecution of the newcomers has defined distinctions based on false conceptions of race and civility ever since. In the national discourse and behavior, the tyranny of violence has been raised and slapped the public conscience with its instantaneous presence in daily life. The slaughter of African Americans engaged in Bible study in a South Carolina church defies sensibility and principles of safety presumed of civil society.
For members of my boomer generation, the national and international prominence of violence was often localized. Days after atrocities of war, assignations, and brutality the lessons were a historical footnote. Now, every murder is instantaneous, breaking news. Especially when the perpetrators of violent deaths are police officers. Such news is always at the expense of any narrative that might lift the human spirit. Instead, every act of violence increases the purchase of guns and enrollments in shooting ranges. Fear mongering is a prominent diet in every waking hour of each citizen.
In our society race continues to be a badge of second-class citizenship for persons of color. So too is the demise of civil society. All that is wrong with the American polity is race based or derived from abhorrent immigrants whose language and culture differ from a stagnant concept of American society and appears to threaten white privilege. It is here where race and civil society clash and is in need of a systemic remedy.
The agents of civil society are a free press, activists, art, media, and political discourse. Every social change has been the consequence of the messages distributed by one of these vehicles. The recent, national embrace of sexual preference is an example of the power of the agents of civil society. What was a closeted behavior is now a practiced constitutional protection. A result of art, media, and activists.
It is time to eradicate the myths of race, superiority, and inferiority from the human pantheon because in every sphere of human existence, persons of color have smashed the glass ceiling that the rich and powerful used to subjugate those defined as different, less then.
Such is the must do work of the agents of civil society. The expansion of the human gene pool demands that false distinctions be obliterated. Every historical note that depicts inhumanity based upon skin color, gender, religion, or culture must be a reference point only as a precaution against modern day policies or practices repeating the folly of by-gone eras. More important than historical reference points is the narrative that portrays the ways that civil society has moved beyond the barriers that divide and generate fear.
Hate speech by political candidates, murders in a South Carolina church, terrorism in an Orlando nightclub, the snuffing out of the life of African American citizens by rogue policemen, and the assassination of civil servants are manifestations of a moribund legacy. The agents of civil society must offset the domination of mayhem with messages and narratives that lift the human spirit. There is no shortage of stories, images, or artifacts capable of nourishing civil society. It is no longer useful to tell only the bad news. Depictions of mayhem encourage glory seeking via copycat behavior.
We need the agents of civil society to promulgate the virtues, values, and behaviors of effective teachers, courageous and creative artists, activists struggling for social justice, business leaders that are devoted to the common good and their shareholders, and elected officials that do what is right instead of what is expedient and lucrative.
Every day someone somewhere defies the odds. Routinely, persons of color, women, immigrants, and persons with physical and mental challenges are breaking the shackles of old myths and stereotypes. In unsuspecting places, diversity is yielding remarkable benefits to communities and organizations. It boggles the imagination to wonder what might be the accomplishments of humankind were women and persons of color permitted to participate as full citizens of the human race instead of on the basis of exception—persons that successfully defy categories intent on exclusion (e.g. Madam Curie, Jessie Owens, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela…).
The recurring rupture of civil society appears to be a failure to learn from the flaws of prior concepts and practices. Current resistance to modern immigration fails to remember the European influx of 1910 that, arguably, contributed to the growth and development of urban centers and the massive settlement of the western United States. Another example of a misunderstood lesson is the failure to annex all Mexican territory that created an imaginary border that was certain to be permeable. And, no wall in human history has kept the hordes out or the privileged isolated from the expansion of civilization. Each is an example of ignored lessons that should inform an understanding of civil society.
Try as we might to maintain false notions of racial purity, civil society, its values, traditions, and customs are, and will be, multicultural, multi-ethnic, and diverse. Modernity dictates that the hierarchy of social, political, and economic status, that are the legendary barriers to equal opportunity, be systemically dismantled so that new, robust, and inclusive conceptions of civil society be allowed to flourish.
Care must; however, be taken to not be ahistorical about the significance of race in the persecution and violence that has compromised the fulfillment of democratic ideals. To forget the past is to be vulnerable to repeating the most ugly behaviors of humans against humanity.
Nonetheless, there is no place for racial superiority, privilege, or categories in civil society.