Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

The invention of races


Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book will require a longer, more thoughtful response, after I’ve had more time to reflect on the complex issues that Coates addresses. Particularly, why and how so many Americans need to “believe themselves white” and what that means. I am of the generation of Ta-Nehisi’s father, and in the 1960s and ’70s was part of a different “Mecca” (his term for the community of mutual support and strong bonds he discovered at Howard University). We called our Mecca “The Movement” and we were there, in the sit-ins and other demos, protesting with our bodies against that whole labeling.
I’m one of those labeled “white” (my known ancestors were mostly Germans and French), but it was never a definition I sought or even accepted. And (as Coates suggests, but does not develop) it is a fairly recent category, invented after the US civil war by the older elite (putative descendants of English, Dutch and Scottish settlers) as an emergency label to recruit people they had formerly despised — newercomers from Poland, Ireland, Italy, Germany and Jews from anywhere — to rally against the newer and more frightening threat, the ex-slaves and their children. Confusing human genetics with the breeding of animals, they described this new, more inclusive category as a “race”.
The concept of “race” as applied to humans was originally a European invention, adopted enthusiastically by linguists to explain differences in supposed temperament and culture among people of different language groups — “Slavic” vs. “Teutonic,” etc. — on the assumption that all these characteristics were inherited genetically. Then that fragile category (long since abandoned by serious historians of language) was twisted and adapted to defend the privileges of the few, especially in the U.S.

For more on linguistics and racial typologies, I found this paper useful, available online:
Salikoko S. Mufwene (University of Chicago), RACE, RACIALISM, AND THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION IN AMERICA* To appear in LAVIS III – Language Variety in the South: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Michael Picone & Katherine Davis. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Present version submitted in Apr 2006.

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