Latest Headline: DISCOVERY!! Black People are Humans!

The notion that black people are humans is a relatively new discovery in the modern West. The idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity remains problematic and controversial within prestigious halls of learning and sophisticated intellectual circles. The Afro-American encounter with the modern world has been shaped first and foremost by the doctrine of white supremacy, …”

– Cornel West.

West’s main thesis:

…“I shall argue that the initial structure of modern discourse in the West “secretes” the idea of white supremacy…” It is “a particular logical consequence of the quest for truth and knowledge in the West. To put it crudely, my argument is that the authority of science, undergirded by a modern philosophical discourse guided by Greek ocular metaphors and Cartesian notions, promotes and encourages the activities of observing, comparing, measuring, and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies.”

In conclusion:

… “The idea of white supremacy is a major bowel unleashed by the structure of modern discourse, a significant secretion generated from the creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian philosophy, and classical aesthetic and cultural norms. Needless to say, the odor of this bowel and the fumes of this secretion continue to pollute the air of our post-modern times.”

– A Genealogy of Modern Racism. Race Critical Theories. Blackwell

Actually, the body of the chapter is a clear, entertaining, even brilliant, survey, from a postmodernist perspective, of a very small part of the cultural events of the enlightenment, from the 17th to early 19th centuries. The ignorance of the Europeans regarding the differences amongst members of Homo sapiens sapiens was almost total, in retrospect, but the consequences have been, and still are, tragic – a true holocaust. My question is, could the outcome have been different? Would it be reasonable to expect now that the Europeans should have, or could have, known better then? West blames the European (white?) interest in knowledge and truth which seems like a complete contradiction. Due to the successes of science we now know and partially understand our similarities and differences down to the level of molecules. The concept of ‘race’ may, in fact, be a fiction, not real! We should rather be talking about ethnic and cultural differences.

Of course, the whole point of Critical Theory, is to understand the world fully in order to change it. With regard to change, it seems that West’s only strategy is to make inflammatory and provocative statements. There is no unifying theory, but, in fairness to West, hidden amongst all the intellectual and rhetorical flourishes, are carefully crafted disclaimers: his genealogical approach “does not purport to be an explanation of the rise of modern racism, but rather a theoretical inquiry into a particular neglected variable, i.e. the discursive factor, within a larger explanatory model.” West, after all, is a public intellectual, i.e. a politician.

But West is correct, we are now living in a ‘post-modernist era’ – in fact, we will always be in a post-yesterday era. We always deal with problems as they exist in the present, whether we want to or not. So, his inquiry into the past does suggest a few clues. But they must be heeded with great caution since it may be even more difficult to make sense of the past than of the present. At least we have a fairly direct view of the here and now, albeit a minute slice. We have no choice, we must consult history and each other, but judiciously!

My small charitable contribution to the conversation on ethnic and cultural differences is to say that there is hope. I am sure we are learning to trust each other, to listen and to disagree, respectfully and peacefully. Angry voices will be heard, ‘non-discursively’ in the street – it is their desperate way of demanding rightful attention. Most importantly, we should try to accelerate the evolutionary changes that are needed. This is probably where I have a philosophic disagreement with Prof. West: a revolutionary way of modeling the problem would be self-destructive. Evolution unaided might be too slow a process, especially since large numbers of Americans still do not even believe that evolution is real.