From the Letters to the Editor column of the April 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
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To the Editor:
An issue underlying a good portion of the December 2009 Perspectives on History was the status of discrimination (racial, ethnic, sexual, and age) both past and present in our discipline and questions about overcoming past injustices.
The worthy goals of the programs at Hartwick College and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (described in the December 2009 Perspectives on History), and of the AHA’s equity awards initiatives should be recognized as temporary expedients in moving toward a more just society that does not judge individuals by something beyond their control—their status at birth—but rather values their skills, accomplishments, efforts, and so on. Perhaps it is time to recognize the limitations of pluralism, to break the shackles of past discrimination, and for this profession to actively and aggressively promote a truly just society—which is blind to distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and so forth—which judges individuals solely on their merit.
Certainly, one must recognize the noble goals and successes of pluralism—to redress the sins of discrimination by opening closed doors. Nor should we devalue the virtues of other cultures. Obviously, much can be learned from others and we, in the West, do not have a monopoly on truth. However, the philosophic underpinnings of pluralism are grounded in both the aristocratic past, and in Social Darwinism, which holds that people should be categorized by their membership in groups. Modern America’s recognition that past elites (that is, white, well-to-do males) only achieved their status by the accident of birth represented a watershed moment, and the opening of closed doors, the next step. But arbitrarily grouping and judging individuals, negatively or positively, demeans a person’s accomplishments by using discriminatory tools of the past. Using such adjectives as African American, female, or Hispanic, in describing a person as a great writer, teacher, etc. is a qualifier that reminds us to look at this person through the lenses of category. Are qualifiers applied to everyone when considering their work? Is Einstein sufficient or should we add “the Jewish male?” Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for his children to “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” pointed to a color-blind world in which people were judged solely on merit.
Presuming that group membership defines an individual is accepting that each person has rather limited possibilities—the same untenable stereotypes used to discourage Laurel Thatcher Ulrich from going to graduate school because of her gender. Undergraduates easily grasp that insight when shown the 1895 “Classification of Racial Types” in Keane’s Ethnology, and asked, “Does the ‘below average’ stature of the ‘Ideal Mongol Type’ accurately describe 7’ 6” Yao Ming?” Or “does the ‘active, enterprising, imaginative’ ‘Ideal Caucasian Type’ really include lazy, dumb, white men?”1 Confronting such stereotypes teaches that all humans have a great range of potentials—in Pico’s terms—to rise to the angels or fall toward demons, which transcends any arbitrary limitation of race, ethnicity, gender, and the like.
Historians can lead toward King’s dream by actively pushing the value of merit—color-blind, ethnic-blind, gender-blind merit—by exposing the shackles of group categories. Contrasting examples like Keane’s Ethnology or grade school biology lessons of the Nazis on “The Laws of Nature and Humanity” with the insights of evolution is a good start. According to the theory of natural selection, the survival of those with favorable adaptations in any given environment takes place on the individual, not the group, level. Offspring from the same parents have variations, some more favorable than others. To presume, as Social Darwinism taught, that the “survival of the fittest” takes place on the group level is clearly not true.
Attacking racism’s presumptions begins with a genetic consideration of humans. If we differ genetically only 2 percent from chimpanzees, how genetically different is a dark skinned person from one of light skin? Obviously, not much; a great opening to dispose of the concept of race by considering real world examples. Consider the value of contrasting the “One Drop Rule” with a Genographic Project advertisement, “If Carlos knows he is half Irish, one-quarter Spanish, and one-quarter-Chinese, how is it possible that he is also 100 percent Tanzanian?”2 One quickly concludes, as a medical dictionary states, that “everyone living in the Americas today is, properly speaking, African American.”3
The concept of ethnicity reveals similar inadequacies. Today, for example, the ethnic group Hispanic may even include descendants of World War II immigrants from Eastern Europe to Latin America.
Moving beyond pluralism might appear utopian, but consider the crumbling of religion as a social barrier following John Kennedy’s election. Is merit too idealistic a standard for today’s society? The range of icons in popular culture would seem to indicate otherwise. We, as a society, may be closer to discarding the shackles of group classification and embracing a world of merit than we realize. As historians, we should perhaps recognize that the election of 2008, like the election of 1960, demonstrates the validity of such a statement.
Since the Enlightenment, many have asked to be judged by merit and not birth. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was able to do that. Martin Mulford asked to be judged similarly.4 Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed it as a tenet of faith. Over the last half century, great steps have been taken to address the injustices of the past, but perhaps now it is time to recognize, at least intellectually, that those were temporary expedients, and that we need to actively promote a society where each individual is judged simply on their merits.
San Juan College, Farmington, N.M.
4. Martin Mulford, “Ageism and Hiring in the History Profession,” Perspectives on History, 47:9 (December 2009), 22–24.
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