MLK Day Reading

Race: a Study in Superstition: BARZUN, Jacques: Books

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, many people will post quotes from the great man himself, or videos of the “I Have a Dream” speech, or some-such. There’s nothing the matter with that, insofar as it keeps the spirit of the day front-and-center.

Some will attempt to hijack it for some partisan purpose, either to ridicule or shame members of the opposing political party. I think there’s a great deal the matter with that.

As an alternative, I would like to suggest a fine book by the esteemed scholar Jacques Barzun, Race. Amazingly enough, it was written in 1937, and yet for the most part reads as though it could have been released last year or last week. Or, sadly, next year or next week.

In it, he traces the roots of the concept of race to intra-European rivalry, particularly that between the French and the Germans. Each attempts to locate the idea of an Ur-race both for itself and for the other, and each attempts to define certain qualities of that race. In this effort, nobody succeeds, even in internal consistency, never mind being persuasive to those outside the fight. Things get even worse when the basis for “race” moves from the sociological to the phrenological.

In the end, Barzun comes to condemn the entire concept of race as little more than politically-convenient collectivism, a superstition that falls apart under his close examination. Sometimes, this is caricatured as meaning that he’s denying the existence of genetics, but as he’s writing before Watson & Crick, but with the knowledge of Gregor Mendel, he is nowhere close to doing that. What he is doing is denying the attribution of alleged “racial” characteristics to individuals whom one decides to lump in with that tribe.

The last paragraph here may have spoiled Barzun’s conclusions, but it hardly spoils the book, which while brief, is not an easy or light read. It is, on the contrary, a solid and dense tour through the intellectual pedigree of this misbegotten concept.

And, to draw the connection with today’s remembrance, if race itself is little more than a tribal construct, often imposed from without, then what cause can there be for anything other than equality of the individual before the law?

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