A friendly and inclusive racism?
As many critics of academia have asserted, race, gender, and class form the triune god of research in the humanities and social sciences. Thankfully, this holy trinity of progressive scholarship has not gone unchallenged. Critiques of class-focused scholarship are common. Critiques of gender-focused scholarship are also common, even in feminist circles. But what about race? Of these three areas of inquiry, this one provokes the most heated controversy. Just look at what happened last year to Naomi Schaefer Riley on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blog, when she ridiculed a few dissertations by some rising ‘black studies’ scholars. Her original post is here, and her follow-up article in The Wall Street Journal is here. Obviously, race is a topic that must be handled with extraordinary care.
The idea of race is bound up in so much rhetoric that it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of scholars across the political spectrum essentially agree that 1) racism is bad, and 2) that the study of race as anything other than a social construct is unscientific and dangerous. Canada’s very own J. Philippe Rushton, of the University of Western Ontario, was one of the few post-war academics to study the relationship between race and behaviour, and he was treated like the Satan of Psychology until his death in 2012.
Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m not very sympathetic toward racism, which I define as the worldview in which race is seen as the main determining factor in human behaviour. I’m Catholic, and I feel that all people of all races are children of God, without exception; considerations of race should never blur the basic principle that all people are equal in dignity before God. Also, when it comes to Canadian politics, I am a multiculturalist, although my idea of multiculturalism differs from our official multiculturalism. (You can read our Canadian Multiculturalism Act here.) This does not mean, however, that I believe that “race doesn’t exist.” In fact, I feel that in Canada, our inability to address the question of race in a reasoned and honest manner will one day be our undoing. To demand a quantitative standard of equality among groups of people who are qualitatively different will always lead to destruction, pain and injustice.
The problem with official multiculturalism, which guides much Canadian scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, is that it destroys what it is supposed to recognize and celebrate. The recognition of “cultural and racial diversity” (quoted from the Act, above) can easily lead to the relativization and consequent nullification of “cultural and racial diversity.” In the realm of culture, this distinctively Canadian battle between recognition and relativization is ongoing, but in the realm of racial difference, the battle is long over. Race is not considered a biological determinant in human behaviour. What’s interesting is that it wasn’t always this way. Have a look at this classic 1941 pamphlet from Watson Kirkconnell, one of our most esteemed multiculturalists:
In the section called “Myths of Race,” on pages 8 to 11, Kirkconnell states that “The idea that people who speak the same language or live under the same government belong to the same race is one of the most dangerous errors that can delude the human brain” (8). This is his message to Canadians who might find Nazi racial doctrine attractive. He attempts to prove the arbitrariness of national and linguistic differences, however, by pointing out that most Europeans in fact contain varying elements of three different racial types: the Nordic, the Mediterranean, and the Alpine. These are the exact racial categories described by Madison Grant, the American eugenicist who influenced Adolf Hitler. I’m not pointing this out to vilify Kirkconnell. Grant and Hitler believed that the Nordic race is superior, while Kirkconnell clearly states that “No one type has had a monopoly of genius in creating civilization, for all three have contributed abundantly to the upbuilding of the world. Moreover, every nation in Europe has been a mixture of these types and has been actually enriched by the intermixture” (8). Typically Canadian! But seriously, is there perhaps something in Kirkconnell’s conception of multiculturalism that might be worth preserving? Is it possible to recognize and celebrate diversity without relativizing or denying race? Is Canada a biological as well as a cultural mosaic?
I don’t mean to minimize the harm that racism (as defined above) can inflict. Is a friendly and inclusive racism possible? No. Should all considerations of race as a determining factor in human behaviour be considered racism? It’s a question that will have to be answered one day, in an honest and thorough manner, if scholarship on race, which often denies the existence of that which it claims to study, is to avoid entering the realm of the absurd.