Guest Viewpoint by Mekonnen Haile
If only racism were the exclusive preserve of nitwits and cowards, like the morons who run around with sheets covering their heads, or the anonymous cowards who have lately taken to sending miniature hangman’s nooses to black professionals, then it would have been a mere irritant.
These days, it is particularly harmful because powerful people, in a position to do great harm, are often afflicted by it.
Racism is not the problem of a small and deranged minority — the KKK. If it were, as Solzehnitsyn once said, it would have been easy to “cut it out and throw it away.”
Racism is a species of injustice that has strongly and peculiarly marked American civilization. Much of what we are as a nation has resulted from our historical struggle to reconcile our high ideals with our failings in those areas where justice touches upon matters of race.
African-Americans have arguably been disproportionately afflicted by this injustice. They continue to do so. Though it is perverse to deny the tremendous progress that has come in the wake of the civil rights movement, any but the most occluded will fail to see how much remains to be done.
To give just one example: in a nation where only 13 percent of the population is African-American, nearly half of those who languish in the vast gulag of our prison system, and nearly half of those on death row, are African-American. If this statistic doesn’t grab you, then you are even worse than I am at math.
A little over two weeks ago, one of the most prominent scientists in the world, the American James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA and received the Nobel prize along with two Englishman, made some harmful remarks regarding people of African descent. (Of course, he might have included himself in this category, given the current stance of science that humanity itself originated in Africa.) Watson expressed his pessimism about Africa’s future: Given the genetic inferiority of Africans, he doesn’t expect Africa to have much of a future.
He joined other prominent racists with scientific pedigrees. To mention a very few: Francis Galton, Darwin’s embarrassing cousin; Thomas Jefferson, the founding father; the Nobel-winning American physicist William Shockley; and Berkeley’s IQ-besotted psychologist Arthur Jensen.
Though he is 79 years old, Dr. Watson is still sharp. His remarks were not a slip. His behavior since the remarks has merely confirmed the worst.
In the case of someone like Watson, racism is a fascinating case study. Scientists, especially those of Watson’s caliber, attain their remarkable insights into the deep and mysterious nature of things, by conducting themselves in a very disciplined way. They know, better than most, that something is not true because it seems that way; far less, because one wishes for it to be so. Watson did not get to pry the deep secret of the DNA molecule from Nature’s tight fist by speculating. He did it by excruciatingly hard and careful work, by the most seamless integration of the evidence and reason.
So why was he so careless with his remarks about Africans when he lacks the kind of evidence that lacks scientific credibility? And considering the harm he can do?
Because Watson is not as deep in his humanity as he is in his intellect. In this, he differs from Einstein who was much more sensitive when it came to power and justice.
In 1937, the African-American singer Marian Anderson was in Princeton, New Jersey. A motel, the Nassau Inn, refused to put her up. Einstein, who advocated equal treatment for all people, put her up at his house on Mercer Street. A small gesture, but one should never doubt the great impact of such acts of decency. If you wish for other examples, you should look into some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s deeds.
We need not fear the racism of idiots. But the racism of powerful people is another thing. When they are decent, like Dr. Einstein, and have the ability not only to detect and control the defect in themselves, but also to engage in small and great acts of justice, we have occasion to rejoice.
When they are afflicted with the insensitivity of Dr. Watson, then we are obligated to do our part and remind them. As ever when it comes to anything human, there is little save the struggle.
We must approach the offenders with confidence. Fear itself, as FDR says, is the only thing to fear, in such events. Besides, we can choose to believe that ultimately, injustice — and plain wrong-headedness — are paltry things and no match for the truth.
Mekonnen Haile is a professor of English at this college.