“Skippa, don’t we judge fruits and vegetables by their skin color?” my Southern grandfather used to ask, and I’d nod and pretend I knew what he was talking about. Now that I understand the strain his analogy is under, I’d ask, “Shouldn’t all human beings be valued longer than the shelf life of a banana?”
But I wonder: if humans are so valued, why were 3,446 African-Americans lynched without a trial between 1882 and 1968?
Social science has shown that humans recognize a stranger’s race fifty milliseconds before we recognize his or her gender. Thus, racial identity is our first conscious and unconscious impression of someone. Fortunately, my parents did not reject me for my “olive” complexion when mother’s skin was the color of linen and Dad the color of wheat.
But if I was accepted by parents with lighter skin, why do some assume that “the darker the skin, the greater the sin”? Don’t brown lives matter? Weren’t Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad all brown? If all seven billion of us were lined up from the darkest Nubian to the fairest Finn, could any judge determine where one race started and another stopped?
When a stranger’s race registers in our minds, what exactly are we noting? Technically and principally, it’s skin color, nose width, and hair type. In other words, superficialities. Think of it: the great majority of humans receive their skin color from melanin. Albinos with their milky-white skin are the exception. Melanin, which the Greeks thought of as “the darkening agent,” is an organic compound which protects us from the sun’s burning rays, and which can be manufactured as the need arises. The compound is identical in all races however they are defined or classified, the only difference being in its concentration. Just as the distribution of melanin varies, noses range from the relatively slender ones of Whites to the broader, flatter noses of Blacks. And, of course, all humans grow hair whose differences are technically classified by the shape of a hair in cross section. Asian hair is generally round; the hair of Whites is generally oval, and the hair of Blacks is relatively flat. As I said, the differences are superficial.
But if the race of a person is a superficial distinction, why did some courtrooms in the Jim Crow era have separate Bibles for black and white defendants to swear on? And why did federally funded bookmobiles often refuse to stop in black neighborhoods?
Fifty thousand years ago, all humans had dark brown skin, broad noses, and curly hair, or so paleoanthropologists surmise. Racial differences did not exist because there were no races for the 99.99% of the time humans have hunted and gathered. But as climate change and population pressures forced humans to emigrate out of Africa, where they’d lived for about four million years, and away from the equator into Europe, Asia, and the Americas, their bodies adapted to the new climates they faced. Thus, over a relatively short time, Scandinavians, to cite just one example, developed the fair skin, oval-blond hair, narrow nose, and blue eyes we associate with them. Race is largely then an evolutionary adaptation to geographical latitude and isolation.
But if race is a geographical accident, and if blood, bone marrow, and organs can be shared across racial lines, and if the DNA of every human is 99.9999% like every other, why did African-Americans in 1991 have to wait 13.9 months for a kidney transplant as opposed to 7.6 months for whites? Some questions defy an answer.
Nevertheless, progress has been made; indeed, many (myself included) think the racial progress of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first is the finest accomplishment of the human race. Fifty years ago, “Whites Only” signs were littered across the American South. Today, the only place one might see such a sign in this country is at a private tennis club, and the restriction would apply only to the clothing worn on the court, not the race of the players.
Other measures of progress include America’s first black Supreme Court justices, congressional representatives, and President. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention, which in its formal apology of 1995 admitted to opposing “legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans,” elected its first black president in 2012. Closer to home, I’m always pleased to see black professionals seated beside white shopkeepers at Mac’s Drive-In in Clemson. Nevertheless, I would argue that a more promising sign of progress is not the actions of the young, who are less familiar with the uglier forms of prejudice, but the actions of people like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Both of these men were outspoken racists in their youth, but later Thurmond fondly supported his mixed-race daughter through college, while Wallace chose three black men he’d nominated to the Alabama Highway Patrol to be among his pallbearers.
However, my favorite personal example of progress is something I heard a black adolescent tell a beloved teacher in all innocence and freedom: “You may be white, but you have a black heart.”
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched for less than this.
Despite the straitjacket of history, progress has been made. Many American Puritans thought the souls of virtuous blacks turned white in heaven. In the eighteenth century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a slave owner who would found America’s first abolitionist society, thought African skin was a result of an ancient leprosy epidemic. Rush and many of his contemporaries, however, thought that as living conditions improved, blacks would turn white. In the following century, Brigham Young concluded that “the mark of Cain” was black skin and Cain’s descendants carried that eternal curse. And in the twentieth century, more African-Americans were lynched than in the previous one when slaves had the same social standing as mules and wagons for two-thirds of the century.
Yet for all the progress in this country, black women’s lives are three years shorter and black men’s lives are five years shorter than their white counterparts. Racial taxonomists still cannot agree on whether there are sixty races across the globe, five, three, or one. We still use terms like “olive complexion,” “the redskins,” and “the yellow race” when we mean “brown.” And in 2005, eighty percent of Kenyan women were using skin lighteners.
Many years ago, when the term “yellow peril” came up in a literature class, it just so happened that an Asian and an African-American were seated side by side in the front row. I asked them both if they would please roll up their sleeves as I explained the origin of “yellow,” “red,” “white,” and “black” as racial designations. Then I walked over to where these two were sitting and asked them to raise an arm. As their arms rose, I placed my own bare arm beside theirs, and I think we were all astonished to see how close to identical our skin colors were.
So here’s what I’d say today to a black college freshman aside from what I’d say to any student: “Be kind, stay in school, and don’t do drugs.” To my hypothetical freshman, I’d say, “Cultivate your color-blindness.” I’d also say the same thing a Jew once told his African friend, “Don’t wait for people to love you.” Moreover, I’d say, “The future is brown, but don’t expect whites to blindly accept that inevitability.” Finally, I’d say, “Take the initiative, and when you see a blind student waiting to cross the street, take him by the arm. The light of virtue is unpigmented.”