05/31/2016 05:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Race Delusion: Lies That Divide Us

Jack Moreh, Learning and Education - Brain Functions Development Concept

David Livingstone Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of London, Kings College, where he worked on Freud's philosophy of mind and psychology. His current research is focused on dehumanization, race, propaganda, and related topics. David is the author of seven books and numerous academic papers. His most recent book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (St. Martin's Press, 2011) was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. He is also editor of How Biology Shapes Philosophy, which will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year, and he is working on a book entitled Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization, which will be published by Harvard University Press.

David speaks widely in both academic and nonacademic settings, and his work has been featured extensively in national and international media. In 2012 he spoke at the G20 summit on dehumanization and mass violence. David strongly believes that the practice of philosophy has an important role to play helping us meet the challenges confronting humanity in the 21st century and beyond, and that philosophers should work towards making the world a better place.

Robert: David, your great book, Less Than Human, has stayed with me since I first read it a few years ago. What, if any, connections should I make between race, racism and dehumanization?

David Livingstone Smith

David: Racism and dehumanization are very intimately connected. To explain the connection, I need to say a little bit about what race and dehumanization are.

Let's start with race. Races are supposed to be real, objective divisions of the human family--analogous, perhaps, to breeds of dog. To be a member of a certain race is to be a certain kind of human being. Racial identity is supposed to be innate and unalterable (you don't have any choice about what race you belong to) and transmitted from one generation to the next.

There are many systems of racial classification and these vary from one historical era to the next as well as from culture to culture. Contemporary Americans regard Irish and Jewish people as white, but this wasn't always the case. In the past, both Irish and Jewish people were thought of as belonging to non-white races. When English settlers first landed on the shores of North America, they considered Native Americans as white, and only later came to regard them as members of an alien race (the "merciless Indian Savages" of the Declaration of Independence). And, in Sudan, the dark-skinned residents of the northern part of the country regard those living in the south, but not themselves, as "black." But Americans would see them both as members of the same race.

Most people think that it's obvious that races are real biological categories. However, most of the scholars who study race think that races are invented categories. When one group of people sets out to oppress another, they "racialize" them--that is, they think of them as fundamentally different from and, importantly, inferior to themselves. Prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, sub-Saharan Africans did not consider themselves members of a single, homogeneous "black" race. Instead, they identified themselves as members of any one of a number of distinct groups--as Akan, Wolof, Mbundu, etc. The idea of "blackness" was a European invention, designed to legitimize the oppression of Africans.

The idea that races are invented will probably sound crazy to a lot of people. They'll think of it as a silly idea that only an academic who's out of touch with the real world could come up with. Surely, there are visible features such as skin color, hair texture, facial morphology, and body build that set the races apart from one another!

It would be foolish to pretend that there aren't obvious biological differences between human beings and that these differences are tied to certain geographical regions. If you're a light-skinned person with blue eyes you very probably had lots of ancestors from northern Europe, and if you're a dark-skinned person with tightly curled dark hair you very probably had lots of ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody worth listening to denies these facts about human diversity, but there's a big difference between race and diversity.

Phenotypic diversity is a fact, but race is a theory. It's what we call a folk-theory. It's a way of trying to explain human diversity by positing that there are a small number of "pure" types (races) of human beings--black, white, etc. According to the folk-theory, everyone is either a member of one of these pure types or a mixture of them. This theory of race is false, for all sorts of reasons. One reason is the fact that the biological traits that are conventionally associated with race--like skin color--vary continuously across geographical regions. Imagine taking a slow train from equatorial Africa to Scandinavia. As you travel north, the skin color of the people that you see lightens gradually. So any line that you choose to draw between so-called white people and so-called black people is bound to be arbitrary. The very same consideration applies to all the other "racialized" traits as well.

Now, there's one more key point about race that I need to discuss before moving on to talk about dehumanization. According to the folk-theory, a person's appearance is an indicator of their race, but it isn't what makes them a member of that race. Perhaps an analogy will make this a little clearer. Sneezing, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat are all symptoms of having a cold, but they aren't what make it the case that one has a cold (being infected with a cold virus). If a person's race were purely a matter of how they look, it would be possible to change one's race by changing one's appearance. But (as evidenced by the public outcry surrounding Rachel Dolezal last year) this doesn't fit with the way that we ordinarily think about race. Also, consider the notion of "passing." A person is said to "pass" as a member of a race if they misleadingly present themselves as belonging to that race on the basis of their appearance (for obvious reasons, it is most often members of oppressed groups that pass themselves off as members of the dominant group, although there are some interesting exceptions). If race were really determined by appearance, then the notion of passing would make no sense at all.

The fact that the way that a person is racially categorized can come apart from their appearance forces us to look more deeply into what's really going on when we racially classify people. We seem to assume that every member of a race shares some deep characteristic or "essence" that is unique to that race--something "in the blood" or in the genes that's innate, unchangeable, and inherited biologically from one's parents.

The notion that there are racial essences doesn't have a shred of scientific support. In fact, it's totally incompatible with what science tells us about human variability. It's pure fiction, but it's a fiction that's stubbornly rooted in our ordinary ways of thinking.

Now we're positioned to move on to the topic of dehumanization. I need to start by clarifying what I mean by "dehumanization." The word "dehumanization" is used in all sorts of ways in both the scholarly and popular literatures. Some people see any kind of demeaning, disrespectful, or degrading treatment of others as dehumanizing. Others think of objectification--for example, the sexual objectification of women in pornography--as dehumanizing. And there are many, many more notions of dehumanization in circulation. When I use the term "dehumanization," I have something very specific in mind: when we dehumanize others, we think of them as subhuman creatures.

A lot of my work on dehumanization has been focused on explaining why this happens and explicating the psychological processes that underpin it. Briefly, I think that we dehumanize others to disable inhibitions against harming them. All social animals have built-in inhibitions against harming members of their communities. If these inhibitions weren't in place, their social groups would disintegrate. Human beings are far more social than any other mammal. We live in very large, highly cooperative groups in which lethal violence is relatively uncommon. However, we're also highly intelligent primates, and our great big brains enable us to recognize that it's sometimes advantageous for us to do violence to our fellow human beings. Dehumanization is a way of overcoming our inhibitions against performing acts of violence for our own advantage. Conceiving of other people as rats, snakes, lice, dangerous predators, or beasts of burden, makes it much easier to treat them inhumanely.

Racism is often a precursor to dehumanization. In circumstances where one group of people wants to exterminate, harm, or enslave another group of people, the first step is to form the belief that the target group is racially alien. But this isn't yet dehumanization, because members of the target group are seen as inferior human beings, but human beings nonetheless. However, racism very easily transforms into dehumanization. When this happens, members of the oppressed group are no longer seen as inferior human beings, but rather as counterfeit human beings--beings that look like humans, but which aren't really human at all. I have written extensively about the transition from racialization to dehumanization: Native Americans, Africans, Jews and other racialized groups have all, at one time or another, been regarded as subhuman entities.

Robert: So, couldn't our great big brains be responsible for either innate or evolved processes that prompt us to quickly distinguish and categorize one face from another perhaps to determine friend from foe? Was the concept of race born as some kind of survival mechanism?

David: Because we're hypersocial primates, with a strong bias towards vision, we have a knack for recognizing and categorizing human faces. In fact, there is some very cool research from neuroscience showing that the human brain processes faces very differently than it processes other kinds of visual inputs. And yes, the ability to distinguish between friend and foe is one aspect of our social intelligence--but it's not the only aspect, and perhaps not the most significant one. However, distinguishing friend from foe is a far cry from sorting people into races. During our evolution, human beings lived in small, relatively isolated groups and rarely if ever encountered people who were "racially" different. It follows from this that prehistoric people's friends and foes were overwhelmingly likely to be members of the same "racial" group.

More importantly, remember my point that racial categorization isn't simply the perception of biological diversity. It's a way of explaining diversity by categorizing people into types, and the evidence is simply overwhelming that the way that we carve up the human family into races is best explained by political forces rather than any innate tendency to distinguish friend from foe.

Having said all of this, I want to make it clear that I don't want to deny that the evolved structure of the human mind is irrelevant to racial thinking. Human beings are animals, and that means that evolution plays some role in explaining everything about us. The question is, what role does it play in any given case? I think that the evidence points to the conclusion that the relation between our cognitive evolution and our tendency to racialize others is an indirect one.

Robert: What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

David: Well, the difference is supposed to be that race pertains to biology while ethnicity pertains to culture. One way of cashing this out is to say that you can change your ethnicity but you can't change your race. But, in practice, the situation is a lot messier than these definitions suggest. The category "Hispanic" is supposed to refer to an ethnicity, but people classified as "Hispanic" belong to a diverse range of cultures. "African American" is thought of as a racial category, but it's actually a cultural one (Ethiopians have very little in common with African Americans, but they're considered members of the same race). Furthermore, ethnic categories readily become racialized, and vice versa. Although "Hispanic" is ostensibly an ethnic category, in practice it's increasingly being treated as a racial one. Jews used to be thought of as a non-white race, but nowadays Jewishness is at least ostensibly thought of as an ethnicity. Because the boundary between race and ethnicity is so permeable, many scholars have abandoned "race" and "ethnicity" in favor of the hybrid term "ethnorace."

Robert: Are there any positive applications for the concept of race in our society? What are the negative consequences of race consciousness?

David: Karl Marx once wrote, "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." That perfectly sums up my view of race. I think that race is a destructive and oppressive delusion--a nightmare. The idea of race has facilitated war, genocide, chattel slavery, and oppression for thousands of years. Think of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades, the holocaust, the Namibian and Rwandan genocides, the extermination of Native Americans, Belgian colonialism in the Congo (which took the lives of as many as ten million women, men, and children), the genocide unfolding in Sudan as you read these words, and the atrocities perpetrated against African Americans in the South for a century after slavery was ostensibly abolished in the United States. Think of the racism still rampant in the world today--and the poverty, mass incarceration, and exclusion that comes in its wake. All of these, and many more, are legacies of racial thinking. The idea of race would have to have a great deal going for it to counterbalance the evil that has been, and continues to be, committed in its name. Some people argue that we need to retain the idea of race to justify affirmative action and reparations (both of which I strongly support). But acknowledging that African Americans and other racialized groups have been treated unjustly doesn't require us to retain the idea that there are races any more than, say, acknowledging the fact that many thousands of women were once executed for being witches requires us to retain the idea of witchcraft. Another argument for the positive value of race is that it provides a focus for solidarity among oppressed and marginalized people. This is true, but notice that the need for such solidarity is itself a result of racialized oppression. The idea of race created the problem for which it is offered as a solution!

Robert: How could the perception of race be successfully replaced?

David: I think that the project of getting over race needs to be pursued on at least three fronts. One is psychological. It's clear that there's something about how the human mind works that makes us vulnerable to the race delusion. This suggests that our strategies should take account of a sound understanding of the psychological forces that drive racial thinking. One view of the psychology of race, which I think has a whole lot going for it, is that our minds have a built-in tendency to essentialize, and that this explains why the idea of race comes so easily to us and why its so difficult to uproot. If this is right, then we should identify the circumstances that promote or discourage essentialistic thinking, and craft interventions accordingly. For example, there's psychological research suggesting that certain forms of speech (technically called "generics") encourage us to essentialize others. Perhaps avoiding those linguistic forms might help us get over race.

The second front is social and political. The idea of race is sedimented in our cultural practices and institutions, and is affirmed and reaffirmed every day in the media, on application forms that ask us to check off our race, and so on. We're all marinated in racial ideology, and an effective campaign against racialization needs to address the issue at the collective, structural level as well as the individual, psychological one.

Finally, I think that we need to address the problem educationally. Most people are ignorant of the hideous history of race and racism, and don't understand that folk-biological concepts of race are scientifically incorrect. A little education can provide a big bang for the buck. Once a year, I teach a course entitled "Race, racism, and beyond" to upper-level undergraduates. Many of these (predominantly white) students come to the course with very naïve conceptions about race and racism, and learning the facts is a revelation to them. Some of them parrot that race is a "social construction" without any real understanding of what this means. By the end of the course, these students very often report that they feel cheated by the educational system for not addressing such an import subject, and many of them passionately express the view that this course should be a mandatory component of every college student's education. Almost without exception, they say that their views about race have been radically transformed. I find this immensely heartening.

It may be that the psychological and social forces are so formidable that we'll never be able to cure ourselves of the race delusion. But we don't know, because we've never tried.

Robert: David, your ideas are a good start to addressing the race delusion. Thank you.