Two years ago, a sports announcer in the United States lost his job because he enlarged indiscreetly—that is, before a television audience—upon his views about ‘racial’ differences. Asked why there are so few black coaches in basketball, Jimmy ‘the Greek’ Snyder remarked that black athletes already hold an advantage as basketball players because they have longer thighs than white athletes, their ancestors having been deliberately bred that way during slavery. ‘This goes all the way to the Civil War,’ Jimmy the Greek explained, ‘when during the slave trading. . .the owner, the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so he could have a big black kid, you see.’ Astonishing though it may seem, Snyder intended his remark as a compliment to black athletes. If black men became coaches, he said, there would be nothing left for white men to do in basketball at all. Embarrassed by such rank and open expression of racism in the most ignorant form, the network fired Jimmy the Greek from his job. Any fool, the network must have decided, should know that such things may be spoken in the privacy of the
Most Americans, though perhaps few others, will recognize the allusion. Many years ago, a newspaper editor answered a query from a troubled child named Virginia, who was experiencing her first painful doubts that Santa Claus was a real person and who had written to the newspaper to get an authoritative answer. The answer came in a famous editorial entitled ‘Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.’ Cohen spoke more truth than he realized in thus equating his own—and, presumably, his readers’—need to believe in race with a child’s need to believe in Santa Claus. Anyone who continues to believe in race as a physical attribute of individuals, despite the now commonplace disclaimers of biologists and geneticists,footnote2 might as well also believe that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are real, and that the earth stands still while the sun moves.
Newspaper and television journalists are entitled to be as silly and irresponsible as they wish, and it usually does no harm, since nobody in his right mind pays attention to them. (Richard Coven underlined his scientific illiteracy by speaking of ‘white genes’—entities known to
One of the most important of these absurd assumptions, accepted implicitly by most Americans, is that there is really only one race, the Negro race. That is why the Court had to perform intellectual contortions to prove that non-Negroes might be construed as members of races in order to receive protection under laws forbidding racial discrimination. Americans regard people of known African descent or visible African appearance as a race, but not people of known European
Moreover, people in the United States do not classify as races peoples of non-European but also non-African appearance or descent, except for purposes of direct or indirect contrast with people of African descent; and even then, the terms used are likely to represent geography or language rather than biology: Asian or Hispanic.footnote5 Even when terms of geography designate people of African descent, they mean something different from what they mean when applied to others. My students find it odd when I refer to the colonizers of North America as Euro-Americans, but they feel more at ease with Afro-Americans, a term which, for the period of colonization and the slave trade, has no more to recommend it. Students readily understand that no one was really a European, since Europeans belonged to different nationalities; but it comes as a surprise to them that no one was an African either, since Africans likewise belonged to different nationalities.
A second absurd assumption inseparable from race in its characteristic American form takes for granted that virtually everything people of African descent do, think, or say is racial in nature. Thus, anyone who followed the news commentaries on the presidential election primaries of 1988 learned that, almost by definition, Afro-Americans voted for Jesse Jackson because of racial identification—despite polls showing that Jackson’s supporters were far more likely than supporters of any other candidate to identify him with specific positions that they agreed with on issues that mattered to them. Supporters of the others regarded their men as interchangeable, and were likely to switch again and again, in response to slick advertising spots or disparaging rumours.footnote6
Perhaps most intellectually debilitating of all is a third assumption: namely, that any situation involving people of European descent and people of African descent automatically falls under the heading ‘race relations’. Argument by definition and tautology thereby replaces argument by analysis in anything to do with people of African descent.