I stumbled on an interesting quote from WEB Du Bois, the African-American thinker, activist and founding editor of The Crisis. I’m just getting into African-American history (I’m really, really white and not from the US, but this stuff is just catnip to me). I found Du Bois’ line of argument in “The Conservation of Races” to be uncomfortable.
… in our calmer moments we must acknowledge that human beings are divided into races; that in this country the two most extreme types of the world’s races have met, and the resulting problem as to the future relations of these types is not only of intense and living interest to us, but forms an epoch in the history of mankind.
It is necessary, therefore, in planning our movements, in guiding our future development, that at times we rise above the pressing, but smaller questions of separate schools and cars, wage-discrimination and lynch law, to survey the whole questions of race in human philosophy and to lay, on a basis of broad knowledge and careful insight, those large lines of policy and higher ideals which may form our guiding lines and boundaries in the practical difficulties of every day. For it is certain that all human striving must recognize the hard limits of natural law, and that any striving, no matter how intense and earnest, which is against the constitution of the world, is vain. The question, then, which we must seriously consider is this: What is the real meaning of Race; what has, in the past, been the law of race development, and what lessons has the past history of race development to teach the rising Negro people?
The thing which struck me on reading this is that today we would easily recognize this as an echo of racist ideology. He’s saying that there are limits given by human nature to what groups of people are capable of doing.
This line is one that we keep hearing in lesser forms: Human nature pulls women towards jobs in the low-wage health sector because they’re more caring and empathic. It’s not natural that pair-bonded same-sex people raise children. Affirmative action might pull blacks and women towards careers they are constitutionally unsuited for. Etc.
This idea is almost invariably at the service of conservative ideals. The gravitational pull of “that’s what everyone thinks” always favours the status quo. And the status quo was created by power and money. The idea of natural law and hitting the boundaries of human nature and not challenging them is one which continually comes into play in contemporary debates on race and gender. Maybe they are a constant feature of them. These debates revolve around the idea of an essentialised and normative group identity. Anything beyond the norms is judged unnatural by the greater masses. It’s a control mechanism to make sure that Othered people never challenge norms, because we already know you shouldn’t do that, so you just shouldn’t do that.
John Stuart Mill, in The Subjection of Women has a passage which I kept thinking about after reading this. He talks about the protections for men which ensures that women are forbidden to do certain things:
One thing we may be certain of—that what is contrary to women’s nature to do, they never will be made to do by simply giving their nature free play. The anxiety of mankind to interfere in behalf of nature, for fear lest nature should not succeed in effecting its purpose, is an altogether unnecessary solicitude. What women by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing.
Somewhere in that way of thinking is a way out of the idea of the natural limits of the human. I think. But maybe not. I’ll have to process it. Raaah. I’m not used to thinking out loud anymore. This is going to take some time to get back in the swing of things.