Race = Illusion

Posted on May 6, 2011


By Jolina Harris.

In “the Allegory of the Cave” Plato writes of the prisoners in the cave who can only see images on a wall and concludes, “ All in all, then, what people in this situation would take for truth would be nothing more than the shadows of the manufactured objects”(1). The essence of Plato’s argument is that the consensus of what the majority believes to be true, but isn’t, will pass as truth leaving, most unable to decipher illusions and discover the real truth. The idea of “race” is one of these illusions that passes for truth because of the consensus of an ignorant majority. If you were to ask a group of people what “race” is you would be given various explanations, because the reality is that race is a manufactured concept with no basis in empirical data. Race does not exist as a verifiable genetic quality among humans. Nonetheless, race and racism, the practice of discriminating by race, have been used to justify many of the worst mass crimes in history such as, segregation, slavery, and genocide.

Race according to Webster’s Universal College Dictionary is a “classification of modern humans …based on an arbitrary selection of physical characteristics, now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups”. In other words race is defined by the classification of a group of people with similar physical characteristics. According to the definition today “race” is more in reference to genetic markers, however it does not because race is not biological.  The television series Race: the Power of Illusion emphasizes the fact that it is nearly impossible to know and classify our entire genetic history because our DNA is composed of the DNA of millions of ancestors (Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History).  We are more similar biologically than any other species, in addition, gel electro kinesis which is a collection of DNA and proteins proves this.  A white individual in America has the same genetic make-up as black individual living in Africa, for instance. So now, does that make that individual black? In sum we are all mongrels, mixed continuously throughout time.

Race classification  dates all the way back to the 17th century as a remedy, explorers used race in order to explain the differences between themselves and the peoples they encountered and colonized .Furthermore race is a social stipulation by which the global society  has been conditioned into believing it is true, in order to explain differences of people. These explorers not only saw distinctive differences among races, they also believed that some races were inferior to others hence racism.  Consequently, it is this ignorance that Plato refers to when he speaks of the prisoners in the cave, race is just a manufactured object of its inhabitants, to step out of the cave and embrace the truth would disrupt the status quo.

Segregation, a symbol of status and an effect of racism, peoples of darker color were seen as inferior therefore needing to be separated, in order to ensure the success and longevity of superior genes. Take Fredrick Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro for example, he stressed white superiority on account of mortality rates between white and black infants, stating that black people’s genetic makeup was weak and would eventually die out, the black race would be extinct.  However he did not include that the fact that black people at that time lacked the proper living resources in order to stay healthy, the living conditions were very poor, when the living conditions were addressed and improved the mortality rates went down; thus proving Hoffman’s data analysis flawed.   Race objectifies human beings and objectification is the first step to justifying violence (Psychology: Themes &Variations 245), racial inferiority leads to objectification, consider this, whenever there is a “we”, there is always a “them”. To take case in point, apartheid in Africa and Jim Crow laws in America both enforced legal systems of racial segregation resulting in sponsored violent oppression as well as repression against opposition.

The ideology of supremacy can be dated back even further to slavery, Atlantic Slave trade, taking millions of Africans from their homelands to the new world “Americas” to be sold off as if they were items. Within colonies men, women, and children those who were once free, were then forced work on vast lands with no pay, and on occasion even beaten.  Denying those human rights not allowing them to learn how to read, or congregate together because of fear of an uprising.

The Holocaust is another example of where racism was used to justify the killing of mass number of people. The amount of discrimination and violence against groups of people has, as a result strengthened of the idea of race, and in fact helped spread the idea. People began referring to themselves as whatever their race was presumed to be. For example the Jewish people, it used to be that an American, German, European or whatever may have you chose the religion of Judaism in which formed a type of religious community just as there were Christians and Catholics. Somewhere along the lines of their religious practices and customs, the assumption was made that their physical characteristic didn’t match everyone else’s. When the economy plummeted in Germany Jewish people were an easy scapegoat, the target of Nazi racism lead by schizophrenic dictator. The Jewish people were killed in a mass genocide in what we today know as the holocaust. It follows, then that Jewish people began to see themselves as a nationality, due to them bonding together for survival, not the survival of their “race”, but their survival, period. Ultimately the lines differentiating being an ethnic community composed of believers and followers of a monotheistic faith and what is means to be a race were blurred. Consequently “Jewish” people are referred to as a race as oppose to just believers of a specific faith.  I asked Jewish colleagues of mine what Jewish people are referred to apart from “Jewish people”, like black people are as known as African Americans. The response was, “There really isn’t any, you would just say Jewish people”. The truth of the matter is that we are not born knowing what “race” we are, we just know that we’re here and alive. On the contrary, it is our social environment that conditions us into beliefs and behaviors, if you question this, fill out an application, and you’ll find that one of the questions asked is “what race are you?”

Yet some people may challenge the view that race is an illusion. After all, many believe that race is a part of their identity and without it, who are they? Indeed my own argument that race is manufactured and dangerous seems to ignore that race unifies people and even nations.  Yes, but it also divides people, consider the piece from Brent Staples, “Black Men in Public Space” written in the 1986. Staples illustrates the reality of black males being profiled as criminals because of their “race”, recollections of white women crossing the street and bracing themselves at the site of a young black male. Black men having to seem more intelligently inclined to put strangers as ease; “Black Men in Public Space” reflects life, though it was written as fiction was meant to exploit the reality of racial profiling. The choice of following the majority is extreme dangerous, especially in regards to race and racism.  The solution to racism is not more racial thinking, but less of it.

In an address to the public, Kant deplores the tendency for men to be complacent in exercising their use of reason because it was the path of less resistance (1). Emphasizing that enlightenment is actively practicing one’s use of reason in private and public situation (2). Plato also believes that enlightenment is essential to act wisely in your public and private lives (3).  I wholeheartedly believe that one has to think for themselves, regardless of the consensus of the majority.  Thinking for yourself thus denying the biological reality of race, furthermore you are not denying the social reality of race. A vast number of individuals are still in a stage of immaturity, instead of using their own reasoning to come to inductive conclusions, they continue to be deductive and conformed to the status quo that society has placed. In short “race” is a manufactured object of imprisoned people, being subject to social opinions. The idea of race has lead to the objectification of humans, resulting in slavery, segregation and genocide. A majority of conflicts feebly rooted in an idea, ignorance has lead society for too long, truth and use of reason cannot be as bad as this.  The upshot of all this is that as humans we are not perfect but we can always strive to become better. Use to our advantage, the inductive reasoning, question the status quo in attempt to change it. Plato knew and understood that one doesn’t just wake up enlightened, but he was also aware of the fact that once you’re exposed to the truth, you’re outlook changes.

Works Cited

1. Kant, Immanuel. Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784) Prussia: Konigsberg, 1748. Print.

2. Marks, Jonathan. 1995. Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. 2003. Web

3. PBS.org. Race: The Power of an Illusion. Public Broadcasting Service. 2003. TV

4. Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes and Variations. 7th ed.  NY: Thomson Wadsworth, 2011. Print.

Posted in: Global Topics