24 April, 2008


The concept of 'race' is, in my opinion, one of the more dangerous ideas to be developed in the C20th. The colour of a person's skin is useful to the extent that it helps to identify them, as in "Bob? Yeah, he's the tall back guy in the corner next to the Asian girl" and useful in almost no other way. Even in medicine, whilst there are some illnesses which certain racial groups are more likely to suffer from than others, the differences within those racial groups are larger than the differences between groups.

When people are trying to point out that there are differences between different races of people but not do so in a negative way they often point to the fact that the Olympics are dominated by black runners, even representing countries that are overwhelmingly white. What they omit to mention is that the 'black people who are faster at running than white people' actually only covers a certain portion of black people, genetically from a fairly small area of Africa (apologies, I can't remember where, exactly).

The dangers of using race as anything more than a quick identifier (in the same manner we would use ginger hair) was hammered home twice today:

1. Mugabe
2. Obama v Clinton

1. Mugabe is a nasty man. He's also lost his election, but just won't tell anyone. None of the people around him are doing it. Why? Well, this article suggests that it's in part a reflection of a pan-African identity. That basically, the reason why Mugabe isn't being criticised is because he was successful in overthrowing colonial government. Race in a historical context is more difficult. When a group of people have a shared collective experience which they were forced to share because a different group imposed their concept of difference on them then the extent to which race is an indicator of something more becomes a bit more blurred. That said, sure, colonialism generally bad, independence generally good; but when other leaders are not criticising Mugabe because he, as a black man, kicked out the whites a few decades before and they take the view that this act trumps all his oppression of his own people (also, on the whole, black), the the concept of race - especially the idea of there being a conflict between races - has got way out of hand.

2. More and more commentators, like this one, are pointing out that although they, personally, support Obama, they think Clinton has a better chance of beating McCain because Obama can;t get the votes of the poor working class. Now, some of this is racism on their part, some of this is a reaction against his preacher (who, inter alia, believes the US government developed and/or spread HIV/AIDS as an act of genocide against black people).

The preacher's attitude towards race is as damaging to a cohesive society as a typical red-neck.

A few centuries ago, being left handed or having red hair was a sure sign that you were a witch, in league with the devil and needed to be killed (hanging, burning or drowning being the 3 methods of choice). Now, no-one cares. Sure, red-heads are more likely to suffer some medical problems not suffered by non-red heads (usually related to their tendency to have paler skin and suffer from sun burn more). Sure, there are some jokes about red-heads. Sure, some people express a sexual preference for/against red-heads. None of this is especially damaging. We've managed to move on from 'burn the witch!'.

Am I being overly utopian when I say only hope that we are able to do the same thing with race.

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