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“Prescriptions are merely public confessions of prescriptionists … what is right for one individual may be wrong for the next; and what is sin and abomination to one may be a worthwhile part of the next individual’s life. The range of individual variation, in any particular case, is usually much greater than generally understood. Some of the structural characters in my insects vary as much as twelve hundred percent. This means that populations from a single locality may contain individuals with wings 15 units in length, and other individuals with wings 175 units in length. In some of the morphologic and physiologic characters which are basic to the human behavior which I am studying, the variation is a good twelve thousand percent. And yet social forms and moral codes are prescribed as though all individuals were identical; and we pass judgments, make awards, and heap penalties without regard to the diverse difficulties involved when such different people face uniform demands.”

—Entomologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey

“Are we allowed to sing? I imagine that at times it might improve the tone of the debate.”

–Canadian opposition leader Jack Layton on the House of Commons floor two months ago.

Layton, the head of the progressive New Democratic Party, died of cancer this morning at the age of 61. As I noted on this site at the time, Layton’s NDP won astonishing gains in this spring’s Canadian elections, transforming the country’s political landscape while electing six – yes, six – activist undergraduate students to the country’s parliament.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

–Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852.

“The events we’re seeing are happening because this university is not a community of students and teachers as it should be. Instead it’s an institution run by professional managers who have other interests. The security police on campus should serve the students and faculty. Instead they are hostile and contemptuous towards them, and often harass them. As for the administration, it should be in the employ of students and faculty, not the other way around. The students have rebelled against the administration because it identifies itself with all the outside forces that the students oppose.”

–Harvard professor Jeremy Larner, 1970

I recently finished reading A Rap on Race, the book-length transcript of a conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, recorded in
the summer of 1970. As I said over the weekend, it’s a fascinating book, and I’m going to be posting excerpts off and on for the next while. I put up the first on Monday — here’s the second, somewhat condensed from the original:

MEAD: This was, I suppose, twenty-five years ago. I was speaking in those days about three things we had to do: appreciate cultural differences, respect political and religious differences, and ignore race. Absolutely ignore race.

BALDWIN: Ignore race. That certainly seemed perfectly sound and true.

MEAD: Yes, but it isn’t anymore. You see, it really isn’t true. This was wrong, because —

BALDWIN: Because race cannot be ignored.

MEAD: Skin color can’t be ignored. It is real.

BALDWIN: It was a great revelation for me when I found myself finally in France among all kinds of very different people — I mean, at least different from anybody I had met in America. And I realized one day that somebody asked me about a friend of mine who, in fact, when I thought about it, is probably North African, but I really did not remember whether he was white or black. It simply had never occurred to me.

Three things jump out at me about this passage.

First, there’s the obvious fact that Baldwin and Mead, speaking forty years ago, regard the idea of racial “colorblindness” as a quaint relic of Jim Crow-era liberalism. It was something that seemed to make sense back in the fifties, they agree, but not anymore. Not in 1970. The fact that we’re still, as a culture, debating this in 2011 is striking.

There’s also Mead’s troubling use of the phrase “skin color” as a synonym for “race.” I know it’s a traditional synecdoche, but it’s weird and unfortunate in this context, because although race is real, it’s not “real” in the sense that skin color is.

Skin color doesn’t determine race — Snooki is darker than Colin Powell, after all. What makes race “real” isn’t its physicality, because race is a cultural, rather than a biological, fact. As I noted on Monday, the one-drop rule was created for social and economic reasons. Genetics didn’t, and don’t, enter into it.

Skin color, in other words, can be ignored. We ignore it all the time. I had to Google photos of Snooki and Powell to make sure I was right about who was darker — I don’t carry that information around in my head. But I do carry around the knowledge that Snooki is white and Powell is black. And it’s that knowledge which can’t be suppressed or wished away.

Which brings us to Baldwin’s comment about his own race-blindness in Paris. Earlier in the book, Mead had paraphrased his insight that “there are no ‘Negroes’ outside of America,” and it seems that this is what’s operating here. The racial categories carries with him are American racial categories, and French racial structures, differing as they do from the American, don’t resonate for him in the same way. And so although it may seem like a contradiction for Baldwin to say in one breath that “race cannot be ignored” and in the next that it had “never occurred to” him whether a friend was French or French North African, it’s actually completely consistent.

Skin color can be ignored. Race cannot.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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