There’s been a lot of conversation about the Supreme Court ruling to end affirmative action in Michigan. It presents an opportunity to explain some things that may be difficult for my fellow white folks to grasp. Hopefully I can do so in a way that doesn’t immediately induce scowls and burst blood vessels. I read a very helpful and influential book several years ago called Race: A Theological Account by J. Kameron Carter that opened my eyes to a critical subtlety within the history of modern racism. Paradoxically, the way that racism came about originally was through the quest of European Enlightenment thinkers to transcend and deny cultural specificity and simply exist as a rational, universalized (secular Christian) humanity. Their attempt to be “color-blind” was the reason they became racist, which is a critically important lesson to white people today who think mistakenly that “color-blinded-ness” is the goal. Please hang in with me while I break this down.
Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes and other Enlightenment philosophers were developing their thought amidst two centuries of horrible bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe. They longed for a universal value system that could transcend religion and national identity. Before the Enlightenment, there was no such thing as white people yet (I’m painting a broad stroke to make this accessible so give me some grace here). There were simply French, Germans, Spaniards, Turks, and so forth. It’s certainly true that darker-skinned nationalities were sometimes viewed negatively by the lighter-skin ones. The warfare between Islam and Christianity had been going on a lot longer than the one between the Catholics and Protestants. But while people of darker-skinned nationalities may have been strategic enemies who were viewed with suspicion, modern racism didn’t begin until darker people became subhumans who could be immediately grabbed and sold into slavery like cattle. Modern racism, the “discovery” of the New World, and the Reformation were basically one big European cultural trainwreck that all happened at the same time.
The way that people of color came to be subhuman to white people was something that happened first to the Jews living Europe. Jews were the main non-Christian people-group who lived all throughout Europe, so they were the original guinea pigs of modern racism. The problem with the Jews was that they didn’t fit in with the spirit of the Enlightenment. The ideal of Enlightenment thinking was a rational system of thought that could be divorced from all cultural specificity and simply built on the reason universal to all humanity. All the Enlightenment thinkers had their roots in Christianity, but they viewed the authority of tradition with a lot of suspicion and disdain. To them, cultural tradition was the reason that stupid religious wars were being fought, so they wanted to mine the universal truths out of Christianity and develop a transcendent, universal rational system of thought they could share in common with all people.
The Jews refused to just abandon their religion and culture to join the newly secularized “enlightened” Christian thinkers in their universal rational civilization, or what has come to be known as “whiteness.” The Jews insisted on sticking to their quaint religious customs, which the “universalist” rationalists interpreted to be the problem with Judaism and the reason that the Jews “killed Jesus” and so forth. Basically, the Jews weren’t willing to become “color-blind, ” to use the term anachronistically, and that’s how they became the first “colored” people (though “colored” obviously wasn’t the word that was used). Jews still saw the world as being divided between Jews who followed God’s covenant and Gentiles who didn’t. They didn’t cause any trouble, but they weren’t willing to assimilate into the pan-European civilization of “whiteness” that was supposed to transcend culture.
As Enlightenment-shaped thinkers began to explore and travel throughout the world, they started to make distinctions between their fellow Western Europeans who were able to transcend culture and simply follow reason and people from other cultures who were still hung up on their religious traditions and unable to join the new elite civilization. White people were the people who were capably of being “color-blind” enough to rise above their cultural tradition and think on the level of universal humanity (as opposed to getting stuck on their Spaniard-ness or German-ness). Colored people were the people who were still stuck in cultural tradition. There were obviously other factors. The people who lived in warmer, more fertile regions did not need to wear as much clothing or have the same sophistication of technology, so these and other observations served as further confirmation of their cultural backwardness.
Pretty soon, white people discovered that they had the “duty” to help the colored people escape their cultural specificity and become part of the new universal rational civilization that was whiteness’ gift to humanity. This was known as the “white man’s burden.” So the white people “helped” the colored (or “un-color-blind”) people by colonizing their land and enslaving their people, which was all justified on the basis of the superiority of the universal culture-less-ness of Western European civilization that came to be the mystery of today’s “whiteness.” The perplexing thing about whiteness is it’s never been a particular culture; it originates in a denial of culture which translates into the assumption that people who are too wrapped up in their culture are inferior sub-humans who deserve to be conquered, colonized, enslaved, etc.
When people today say they’re racially “color-blind, ” they’re usually making a very specific ideological statement, that they can rise above their cultural preferences (just like the original Enlightenment thinkers) and judge all people “equally” regardless of skin-color and solely based on their “merits.” Here’s the very large unrecognized assumption that’s being made here: that human worth can be boiled down to a single number so that one person can be said to have “more” merit than the next person. I imagine that most cultures throughout history would scratch their heads at the idea that people’s identity can be reduced to a number that ranks them above or below other people. Some people are simply better at hunting; others are better at blacksmithing; others are better at playing the flute; but the idea that the variety of skills and idiosyncrasies in each human being needs to be boiled down to a single number called “merit” is a thoroughly “white” Enlightenment concept, because it expresses the goal of trying to strip away all specificity and subjectivity from reality to convert it into universal data that can be evaluated objectively and rationally.
We don’t notice anything odd about this because the “white” ocean in which we swim is built upon the myth of objective meritocracy, whether we’re talking about test scores, sports statistics, stock prices, or political polls. We measure worth through numbers. And we rarely question whether some kids are a lot wiser than their test scores measure or whether the most valuable player on a sports team is actually not the superstar who posts amazing stats but the quiet team player who does a thousand intangible things that stats can’t measure (for example Shane Battier, the most important non-star NBA player in the league right now — YES, he’s from Duke so I’m biased).
Because the numbers don’t lie. And everything can be reduced to numbers. It’s the same Enlightenment lie that created “whiteness” in the first place. Until we recognize the truth that human worth is irreducibly subjective and complex, then we will continue to live in the same paradoxical “color-blind” racism that racism has always been for the duration of its existence. I don’t envy college admissions officers. They have one of the toughest jobs in the world. I would hope that they’re allowed some latitude to be artists in how they concoct the chemistry of each incoming class, rather than cold, methodical meritocrats. I think I would learn more in classes with people who got all B’s but have rich personalities and a variety of cultural backgrounds than people who got all A’s and had their personalities and cultures swallowed and sucked out by the idol of meritocracy.
Objective meritocracy is the foundation of most of the systemic evils that Western European civilization has committed over the past 500 years. How ironic that it came out of a civilization purportedly built on the cross of Jesus Christ, who died to save a world full of sinners from the meritocracy that keeps us from facing the truth about our imperfections and accepting the worth that can only be received as a gift from God. Imagine a world where people stop making each other into artificial numbers of merit and simply delight in all the ways that God’s image has been refracted through the richness of culture and color in all humanity. When meritocracy dies, racism will die too, and we will have a far more beautiful world.