03/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Another Thought on Race: A Difference With no Distinction

I am white. If I stand before an all-black audience, the dissimilarity is clear to everybody in the room. My skin and eye color are obviously not the same as everybody else. The difference is real and undeniable. The tragic mistake of human history is that we have either assigned meaning to this difference or tried to ignore its reality. Both are deeply flawed world views.

Our past is a broken trail of missed opportunities to embrace the third option of celebrating diversity without devaluing those unlike ourselves. Our history could have been otherwise. We do not confer meaning upon all differences we encounter in life. Take two trucks rolling off the factory floor. The vehicles are similar, but each sports a different color, one green the other blue. Inside, one is configured with bucket seats, the other with a bench. Nobody would declare one superior to the other. The difference is clear, but absolutely meaningless in terms of value.

We do not view an elm tree as better than an oak, yet we insist on assigning value or meaning to human genealogy. That we consider black and white in a different light than the green and blue of those two trucks is one of humanity's greatest failings. We will probably never fully understand why we came to this. Perhaps early in our history encouraging group cohesion was essential to survival, and such solidarity was advanced best by excluding and disparaging anyone outside the group. If true, that early strategy for success soon took an ugly turn and became maladaptive, but not before coming deeply embedded in our psyche. Our bloody history of war, enslavement of conquered peoples and genocide is undeniable evidence that our species took a wrong turn in con-specific cooperation somewhere in our evolutionary past. Our ancestors passed through the generations the idea that superficial differences of race were more important than our much deeper commonalities. The awful consequences have been the authors of our history.

Lamenting false conclusions about race is not the same as denying real cultural differences among peoples. It is perfectly natural for one culture to view another's as odd. But "odd" is not equivalent to bad or inferior. Some cultures routinely eat insects as a protein source whereas I find that unappealing. Men carry purses in some societies. We can laugh at each other and poke fun because of these differences, but nobody could reasonably declare one set of behaviors as superior to the other (within the constraints of norms shared by all cultures; I am not advocating cultural relativism). By recognizing cultural differences, derived from learned behaviors, we celebrate human diversity sprung from a common pool even as we snicker or giggle at the rituals of others. That is radically different than condemning someone because of a particular combination of genes with which he or she is born.

Sadly, though, human history shows that we tend to confuse culture and race. The two are often correlated, so the mistake is somewhat understandable, if not tragic. We can change our behavior, expand our horizons by learning from others, enrich our lives by enjoying other cultures, but we cannot modify our genome. That confusion between culture and race is therefore dangerous and harmful: being viewed askance for one's behavior, which can be changed, is not equivalent to being viewed negatively because of one's race, which cannot be. Cultural bias is malleable and changeable; racial bias is not. We would take a step in the right direction if we saw clearly the difference.

When making comments about another group, we usually are referring to cultural practices, not race. In theory that is OK at some gross level because the very things that define a culture can be generalized to some extent -- that is what makes the culture distinct from others. That same thought process, though, becomes more problematic, and dangerous, when applied to an individual. The even deeper problem is that we can slide from cultural to genetic generalization much, much too easily.

I believe one reason Barack Obama is so fascinating to all of us is that he combines a rich mixture of cultures and ethnicities in a way that is charmingly accessible to many people otherwise uninterested. He forces us to face the idea that the boundaries we assume to exist are in fact not real. Breaking down the barrier to our fixed, and ultimately false, ideas about human heritage, culture and race is in many ways equally important to his historic status as the first black president.

Even with rapid progress, and with Obama's incredible achievement, we will not likely in our lifetimes witness a truly colorblind society that values diversity and cultural differences without the constraints of a false appeal to racial distinctions. Our history of abuse and the abomination of slavery are too recent and raw. But we can inch toward that goal and hope that one day the world will be a place in which race is no more important than the color of one's automobile as a means of judging another.