I’ve thought off and on about writing a piece on racism. And every time I do, I keep coming up against the same question: “What, exactly, is racism?”. I’m always baffled by this question because I’m baffled by the question “What is race?”. The following definitions of race come from http://dictionary.reference.com:
1) A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
2) A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the German race.
3) A genealogical line; a lineage.
4) Humans considered as a group
What I find strange about these definitions is that they are inconsistent with each other. By that I mean that the first three present different criteria for defining the group, while the fourth gives no criterion at all. The first requires both genetics and geography, the second requires geography and culture, and the third requires genetics alone. This kind of inconsistency is widespread. The US Government’s list of officially sanctioned racial groups includes groups defined based on each of the first 3 definitions above.
The problem with this kind of inconsistency is that genetics is immutable, while behavior (culture is merely human behavior in the aggregate) is not. Enabling classification based on both genetics and behavior means that group membership is inconsistent and muddled. It also weakens personal responsibility, because people will often assume membership in a group based on genetics when the membership is really based on behavior. Note that such habits can be equally prevalent in both those attempt to place others in a group AND those who consider themselves to be part of a group.
Let me make clear where I stand on this issue: I agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I am concerned that in our attempts to avoid judging based on color, we avoid judging at all. I believe there is a legitimate place for every parent, every community, every society, to judge the actions and attitudes of ALL its members, regardless of their genetics. This is the only path to a civil society - we cannot have civility without a clear definition of what it is, and how each individual can participate in it.
The second half of the preceding proposition is just as important as the first half. To hold people to an unattainable standard is no different morally than judging them based on skin color. In both cases you condemn people for things beyond their control. The second half of the proposition is rather a call to arms to truly understand both the practical paths to participation by all, to enable those paths, and hold each person responsible for making his or her journey down one of them.