Racism is on its deathbed - the question is, how costly will racists make the funeral? - Martin Luther King
Almost everywhere one looks among present societies, race and racism make angry welts and deep wounds on the body politic. It is an irony that although racism is a reality, and a harsh one, race itself is a fiction. The concept of race has no genetic or biological basis. All human beings are closely related to one another, and at the same time each human being is unique. Not only is the concept of race entirely artificial, it is new; yet in its short existence it has, like most lies and absurdities current among us, done a mountain of harm.
The first classification of humans into races was mooted by Linnaeus, who recognized it as a mere convenience with no basis in nature. He employed the same criteria as in his botanical classifications, namely, outward appearance, giving rise later to the simplistic typing of all humans into 'Caucasoid', 'Negroid' and 'Mongoloid'. But advances in genetics have demolished such taxonomies, by taking DNA as the criterion of classification. Linnaeus's system says that one of Buddhism's holy plants, the lotus, is related to the water lily; DNA comparison says it is related to London's familiar and beloved plane tree.
In human terms DNA analysis dismantles the idea of race completely. 'Race has no basic biological reality,' says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University; 'the human species simply doesn't come packaged that way.' Rather, race is a social, cultural and political concept based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other peoples as Europe developed a global reach, with the slavery and colonialism that followed.
It was not only Linnaeus who knew that 'race' is a fiction. In the mid-nineteenth century E. A. Freeman famously discredited the whole of idea of 'community of blood', as did Ashley Montague in the mid-twentieth century. Even Hitler knew it, despite making the concept central: 'I know perfectly well ... that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race,' he said, 'but I as a politician need a concept which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis ... And for this purpose the concept of races serves me well... With the concept of race, National Socialism will carry its revolution abroad and recast the world.'
All human beings have the same ancestors. Human history is a short one; it is less than a quarter of a million years long, with the first migrations from Africa beginning half that time ago. The physical diversity of human populations today is purely a function of geographical accidents of climate and the isolation of wandering bands. The distinctions which have since been drawn between peoples are therefore arbitrary and superficial, even those relating to skin colour - for as a moment's attention shows, there is simply no such thing as 'white', 'black' or 'yellow' people; there are people with many shades and types of skin, making no difference to any other aspect of their humanity save what the malice of others can construct.
To advance beyond racism one has to advance beyond race. But that goal is not helped by what Sartre called 'anti-racist racism', as with the Black Power movement and its cognates. It is understandable that communities which suffer prejudice and abuse should shelter behind a protective assumed identity; but identities grow rigid and become a source of new pieties, new excuses to repay evil with evil - and thereby indirectly entrench the very idea that lies at the root of the problem.
Racism will end when individuals see others only in individual terms. 'There are no "white" or "coloured" signs on the graveyards of battle,' said John F. Kennedy; and there is a significant moral in that remark.