Reflections on Race

In this continuing search for GSOT, the last 2 blogs gave a personal history of race relations from the viewpoint of a white boy growing up in Mississippi. Does the developing theory of GSOT (the grand scheme of things) give any insight for issues of race and ethnicity?

Let me recap here the barest essentials of GSOT as they appear so far:

Two facts that completely lack explanation confront me: 1. The world exists. 2. I move in it.

To amplify just a bit – I move in the world at a particular place and time and in particular circumstances. The world also moves from past to future.

The 2 facts can be expressed in other ways, for example: 1. The world exists. 2. We move in it. Alternatively, for the faith-minded among us: 1. God exists. 2. I/we move in the world God has made.

My consciousness of world and place is both singular and plural. The plural voice needs emphasis. I like to say that we live in varying domes of experience. I’m grateful for the plurality of me and you.

Do we move freely in the world? As philosophers put it, do we have agency? In terms of proof or even plausibility, questions of agency, like the existence of the world and our place therein, remain unanswerable.

Yet we can justifiably stake our claim to agency, or will as it used to be called. To do this, I/we need to own my/our choices and their consequences. By owning up, we can assert the role of will in our world again.

That’s a quick description of GSOT. How does it relate to questions of race?

Let’s think about the varying domes within which our lives unfold. The smallest dome is the individual skull; the largest you might construe as the receding boundary of the expanding physical universe, or if you are religiously inclined, the purview of omniscient God. Between these limits we live in the context of families, friendships, religious groups, political associations, companies and corporations, nations, international alliances, and galactic sci-fi federations.

Sometimes I’ll shrink my view and cultivate isolation purposefully, seeking solitude, which is the soil from which the joy of friendship grows. Revisiting loneliness prepares me for grace, when someone speaks to me from the heart. This principle can apply to groups of people as well as individuals.

My Southern heritage tells me that we live most significantly in the domes of family, friends, and local traditions. When I’m at my best I really believe it. Realms of celebrity and power have less interest.

What about Mississippi, my home state? In a past that I remember too well, domes of race and ethnicity loomed large. Separation was preached, boundaries were enforced, and in my opinion that bred a poverty of spirit. To block off contact with any group of other people signals a lack of courage that results in shrinkage of the world we experience.

As Dylan sang in the sixties, the times they are a-changin’. In the last blog I’ve tried to show how much has changed already at my alma mater, Ole Miss. My place and our place in the world now conjoin people of every race, and most meaningfully those of African descent because I grew up in Mississippi.

I’ve travelled at times to places in northern Europe where I felt oddly out of place despite my Scandinavian ancestry. The lack of black people in those areas (changing now) made me feel just a bit weird, as if I didn’t belong. I feel most at home in a racially mixed world.

The 6 or 7 generations since slavery and the 2 to 4 generations since eugenics and blatant Jim Crow oppression are not enough to predict achievement of equal opportunity for black friends and neighbors. Okay, for the black friends and neighbors whom I know, the perception might be one of sufficient opportunity, if not yet fully equal.

But what about those whom I do not know? I have never spent a night in a housing project or even in an apartment building deemed less safe on police maps. Geography and quality of schooling make a difference. Habits of reading, numbers of books shelved in the home, the exploration of ideas at the dinner table, exposure to advanced occupations, and the ready availability of computers in the home all make a difference. A few successive generations should not be expected to close the gap.

I lived through the time of “separate but equal” public education in the South. That claim was a lie from the start, at worst a conscious lie and at best a poor attempt to hide a conscious lie. Any time someone says that equal opportunity now exists, I wonder if it can be true, as I remember the phrase “separate but equal.”

If will in a family really determines the course of events, then to the degree that we identify with parents, grandparents, and long-passed generations as Mississippians tend to do, we who live in the present will have to own the consequences of decisions made by forebears in the past. Those consequences may include the recognition of debts to pay.

Science-is-everything positivism is blind to acts of will. Guilt, or the acknowledgement of debts owed because of willful acts and omissions, disappears in positivism. The best that the positivist can do is to say that a situation is unfortunate. No blame can be placed or accepted.

Another expression of modernity, religious fundamentalism, recognizes sin, but all sins may be regarded as against God alone. Furthermore, the blood of Jesus cancels sin completely. Sin tends to be neutered by certain theological dogmas. Notions of ongoing guilt and especially collective guilt find scant support in fundamentalism. But Jesus preached against ongoing hypocrisy among the rulers.

I tried to make it clear in the 2 blogs preceding this one that I’m not proud of my passivity and lack of courage in the decades of the civil rights struggle. Nor do I try to excuse enslavement, Jim Crow, and eugenics which form part of my heritage.

Guilt isn’t always a bad thing. It can be embraced. Like the sense of isolation described earlier, guilt gives meaning to the positive acts I can do. As long as guilt is not disabling, it motivates, even makes redemption possible, when I can take positive steps toward reconciliation and paying back debts.

Many would suggest letting go of the past. But I grew up white in a big house with columns on a 20 acre domain in Mississippi. My heritage includes a consciousness of unequal, privileged opportunity, sustained to some degree by regrettable choices. That feeling lends complexity and power to the writing of some Mississippi authors. William Faulkner summed it up by saying, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Should there be preference for racial and other minorities in college admissions, in hiring, and in other areas of public life? Many people think that the best solution is one of no preference, a selection process that is completely unbiased. It should be colorblind, they say.

I agree that selection should neither show preference nor depend on unspoken biases of the evaluator. But modern criteria for selection may take no account of the will of the candidate. When a candidate’s will is considered, obstacles faced along the educational/vocational path assume new importance. If accomplishments are equal, a person gifted from the start need not be credited with the same merit of will as someone who had to choose daily how to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve the same concrete target.

It seems to me that black people and other minorities continue to face obstacles which the majority do not face. By overcoming opposition, their will becomes stronger. Evaluators do in fact consider class effects when grading individuals – for example, the classes of people who write well or score high in math, and so on. Those who have faced and overcome opposition in life form a class with stronger will than those who were never tempered by adversity.

It is not only for the sake of the individual that the merit of a person’s will should be considered when enrolling a student or hiring a worker. Evaluators should be fair to individuals, but the benefit extends past fairness. The institution, the group of students who will learn together, the company, and the work force all stand to gain. Various measures of diversity might be viewed as means toward an end. Persons of greater will are likely to contribute more to the good of all, especially when that will is shaped by opposition which they faced up to that point in their lives.

The concept advanced here is hardly new. Both on the hill and the plain, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, you who are oppressed.” I previously thought he referred only to some future compensation for their trouble, a reward deferred to heaven. But now I wonder if he also meant that you are blessed if your will now, in the present, has been molded by sacrifice and strengthened by adversity.

In the 2010 census, the proportion of black people in Mississippi was 37%. In Louisiana and Georgia, the proportion was a little over 30%, and at least 25% were black in Alabama and South Carolina. The black population is disproportionately young, the white population older. Within a few decades, one can predict that small numbers of white people may join with blacks and other minorities to forge a voting alliance that will transform political power in the South, beginning in Mississippi. It’s happening already in larger cities. Those who in earlier times would seek power by exploiting racial fears are already beginning to disown that strategy at least in public discourse in Mississippi and other states. The times they are a-changin’.


Next post:  Gilbert Ryle, Reconnecting Mind and Body

Previous post:  Ole Miss and James Meredith

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image:  1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, CC0 public domain.


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