Rummaging around my late mother’s home, I came across a “study in the problem of race” called The Clash of Colour. It dated back to the 1920s and reflected a kind of soft anti-racism that now seems quaint … and impossible.
The author, Basil Mathews, discusses the injustice of a world where whites control nine-tenths of the world’s habitable surface. He denounces the hypocrisy of demanding self-determination for Eastern Europeans but not for Africans and Asians. Turning his attention to African Americans, he speaks even more caustically about Jim Crow laws and lack of equal opportunity. Finally, near the end of the book, he quotes a resolution that the World’s Student Christian Federation adopted in 1922:
We, representing Christian students from all parts of the world, believe in the fundamental equality of all the races and nations of mankind and consider it as part of our Christian vocation to express this reality in all our relationships. (Mathews, 1925, p. 149)
Yet, strangely enough, the author’s antiracism co-exists with a belief in racial differences:
When we talk of the unity of man, we do not mean the uniformity of man. Race is real. It seems certain that—as Dr McDougall says—
“Racial qualities both physical and mental are extremely stable and persistent, and if the experience of each generation is in any manner or degree transmitted as modifications of the racial qualities, it is only in very slight degree, so as to produce any moulding effect only very slowly and in the course of generations.
I would submit the principle that, although differences of racial mental qualities are relatively small, so small as to be indistinguishable with certainty in individuals, they are yet of great importance for the life of nations, because they exert throughout many generations a constant bias upon the development of their culture and their institutions.” (Mathews, 1925, p. 151)
These sentiments sound disturbingly similar to those of Dr. James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA double helix, who recently wrote, “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” For these words, Dr. Watson was roundly condemned and forced out of his position at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
James Watson published his book in 2007. Basil Mathews published his in 1925. Between these two dates, antiracism changed. What passed for progressive opinion in the 1920s is now inadmissible.
What happened? There was, to be sure, the world’s revulsion against Nazism. But that isn’t the whole story. Even in comparison to the 1970s, today’s antiracism has become much more radical.
Recently, President Bush pushed hard for an immigration reform that would have reduced white Americans to minority status by the year 2050 while pushing the population total to half a billion. Such a proposal would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. It certainly would not have come from a self-professed conservative. Today, in 2007, such demographic change evokes scarcely a murmur of protest from the left to the right of the political spectrum. America’s elites have converted almost entirely to the anti-racist worldview. And this ‘consensus’ is defended not by debate but by an absence of debate—by a systematic silencing of any dissidence, such as Dr. Watson's.
It’s unhealthy for any belief, however noble, to exist in an echo chamber of constant approval. This is, after all, what totalitarianism is about—the rise to hegemony of one opinion to the detriment of all others. Such is the state of antiracism today. It is no longer the voice of reason that speaks to the screams of bigotry and intolerance. By a strange role reversal, it has become the very thing it used to oppose.
Antiracism, I fear, is painting itself into a corner from which it cannot extricate itself and which it will have to defend with increasingly totalitarian methods. Is this re-enactment of history really necessary? Can we not learn from the past? Must we follow the same trajectory that other hegemonic beliefs have followed with the same tragic consequences?
Mathews, B. (1925). The Clash of Colour. A Study in the Problem of Race. London: Edinburgh House Press.
Watson, J.D. (2007). Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf