'Race' is a tainted term that needs to be discarded

Artifact: The product of 18th- and 19th-century colonial views, the word has made us all forget our common humanity.

October 26, 2003|By Earl Arnett | Earl Arnett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fall housecleaning and winter preparation have begun, a time to discard old clothes, inspect the roof and remove the clutter that accumulates in almost everyone's house over the months and years. Time, too, to examine the dusty chambers of our minds for outdated artifacts, worn-out ideas and inherited words that clutter our common language.

"Race" is one. It is a tainted term inherited from 18th- and 19th-century colonialism. The word has no objective meaning; it refers to myth, not to fact, and has distorted our public dialogues far too long.

In earlier centuries, when applied to people, the word "race" usually referred to humanity or "mankind" descended from Adam. In John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), Satan turns his hate from Heaven to "another World, the happy seat of some new Race call'd Man." As Europeans zealously colonized and categorized that world in the 18th century, the word changed to reflect "racial" divisions among people.

For example, in 1738, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who classified plants, also identified four human subgroups by geographic, physical and mental characteristics:

Homo sapiens americanus: the "red" man, tenacious, contented, free.

Homo sapiens europaeus: the "white" man, light, lively, inventive.

Homo sapiens asiaticus: the "yellow" man, stern, haughty, stingy.

Homo sapiens afer: the "black" man, cunning, slow, negligent.

Count Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, a celebrated 18th-century French naturalist, took these bogus categories and used them as a basis for "race." Thereafter, it was only too easy for European masters and overseers to speak of "races" defined by skin color, ethnic origins, religions, languages and degrees of "civilization." The 19th-century conqueror justified his hegemony by this new concept of "race." The Englishman Charles Darwin could write in 1881: "Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world."

By the beginning of the 20th century, many English-speaking Europeans and Americans agreed with Rudyard Kipling, the great apologist for imperialism: "A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race and breed. Let the White go to the White and the Black to the Black." Even the great W.E.B. DuBois, who defined the problem of the 20th century as the "color line," adopted the racism of his teachers at the University of Berlin and propagandized for "The Race."

However, at the beginning of the 21st century, we know much more about our common biology. We know that such terms as "white race," "black race" and "civilized race" don't mean anything. They're loaded with decades of virulent prejudice, violent confrontation and ignorant debate. The American Anthropological Association has suggested that "race" be abandoned as a category in the 2010 Census.

As early as 1942, the anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote the classic book, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, now in its sixth edition. He proposed that the word "race" be eliminated from common usage. Even then, many biologists and cultural anthropologists agreed that the term "race" had no biological basis and little genuine descriptive value. However, Montagu's suggestion has been largely ignored.

In this age of polluted political dialogue, I propose we update our language and eliminate "race" from the public vocabulary. "Racism" and "racist" retain validity since they refer to those who still believe the myth. Thus the Race Advisory Board should have been named the Racism Advisory Board, and the "race problem" should be defined as the "racism problem." A "racist" is anyone who stubbornly maintains humankind is divided into definable "races."

Lamentably, most Americans still use "race" and believe they know what they're talking about. Newspaper writers and television commentators are as guilty with the word as Ku Kluxers and Black Nationalists.

Assuming that all humankind constitutes one "race" and that we followed Montagu's advice, what words could we use to delineate physical differences such as lighter or darker skin tones, wider or narrower noses and straighter or kinkier hair? I think we simply employ more specific words: "light brown skin," "flared nostrils," "narrow lips," "brown eyes," "fair complexion," "blue eyes," "curly blond hair" and so forth. We already employ such language when talking about individuals. If we need to describe ethnic and other cultural differences, we can use such awkward, hyphenated words as "African-American" or "Polish-American" or employ other generalized terms that have limited descriptive value such as "Catholic," "Jewish" or "Spanish-speaking."

We can begin in our speech to acknowledge that such general linguistic categories are useful but ultimately empty. Each person is unique, a biological and cultural hybrid who deserves a distinctive description rather than a meaningless stereotype.

"Race" won't be easy to discard; the word is embedded in the common vocabulary like a sentimental heirloom in the attic. However, I suggest we try. The word's removal will enhance our public dialogues and create a cleaner verbal house.

Earl Arnett is a former reporter for The Sun. His most recent book is the second edition of "Maryland, A New Guide to the Old Line State" with Robert J. Brugger and Edward C. Papenfuse.

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