Sitting on the Dock of Dismay
By Isiah Smith | March 28, 2020
If the events of the last several weeks have taught us anything, it is how fragile we are. Not only our physical being but also everything in our world, which exists in a state of uncertainty. Everything can change in a second — a nanosecond, really.
The tumult that followed the spread of the Coronavirus should be a warning: We puny humans control very little, and we are now learning that our confidence in control is illusory. Sadly, it appears that we are missing the most profound lessons and priceless opportunities wrapped in the guise of apocalyptic danger. This universal, international health crisis is a stark reminder that we are all more alike than we are different.
The coronavirus has rapidly spread to every corner of the U.S. economy, upending the jobs of Seattle and New York taxi drivers alike, Texas oil workers, Wall Street traders, service industry workers, and nearly all other sectors in between. The virus has swept through Asia and Europe, Africa, and North and South America.
The virus does not discriminate. It doesn’t care what color you are, what language you speak, what or where you worship, whether you attended Harvard, Yale, or (if you’re lucky) The University of Miami. Whether you finished at the top of your class or dead last, you are as likely to be affected by the virus as anyone else. And get this: Labeling it “The China Virus” doesn’t make it any more or less deadly.
It is a human virus, which should have given pause to those who see people only as representatives of a group instead of as individuals with the same fragilities that make all of us uniquely human. We share the same origins and destiny.
Charles Murray, social “scientist” and celebrated white supremacist, long ago decided that he had discovered one great immutable truth. He had, he thought, found the Holy Grail; real scientists would just have to catch up to his genius. Murray’s great truth? In 1994, he and psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein published the book “The Bell Curve,” in which they argued that Africans Americans, on average, score lower than whites on IQ tests, which “proved” they are genetically inferior. Blacks, they posited, would therefore always be disadvantaged, and the government can’t do anything about it, so stop trying.
One can imagine Murray’s dismay upon awakening on Nov. 4, 2008, and learning that an African American had been elected president. Or his horror and dismay upon seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson on PBS, in all his brown-skin glory, holding forth on astrophysics and other “hard” subjects. These two events alone should have persuaded him to reconsider his racist theory.
But he did not. Instead, this year, he published another book: “Human Diversity.”
Perhaps emboldened by the last presidential election, he argues again that race, gender, and social class are not social constructs but immutably encoded in DNA. Twenty-six years later, he reached the same tiresome conclusion: Blacks are genetically inferior to whites.
The argument that gender is determined by biology is a diversion. No reasonable person would argue otherwise. One suspects that Murray added the gender discussion to disguise his non-scientific discussions of race.
Reputable scientists have long held that race is a social construct, and that there is no genetic basis for race; that it is a social and legal definition — one rude, crude, and wrong. What Murray calls “race” is culture, or ethnicity.
Unlike Murray, reputable scientists agree that race is a social construct. Popular classifications of race are based chiefly on skin color, along with other relevant features including height, eyes, and hair. These physical differences may appear, superficially, to be very dramatic; they are not. Only a minute portion of the genome determines them; we as a species are estimated to share 99.9 percent of our DNA with each other. The few differences that do exist reflect differences in environments and external factors, not core biology.
Murray’s intent could not be clearer. But flip to the back of his latest book, and you will find Arthur Jensen as a source. Jensen, an educational psychologist, ignited an international firestorm with a 1969 article suggesting that the gap in intelligence-test scores between black and white students might be rooted in genetic differences between the “races.”
According to most reliable researchers, the “cultural specificity” of intelligence makes IQ tests biased toward the environments in which they were developed — namely white, Western society. This makes them potentially problematic in culturally diverse settings.
It must be added that the culturally specific information that IQ tests measure the very same information that the white Western world used every means available to prevent African Americans from obtaining or even being exposed to. And these efforts continued for more than 300 years.
One great truth: Some individuals score higher (and lower) on IQ tests than others. Some of these individuals are black; some of them are white.
Now back to the virus. Our skin colors won’t save us, our cultures won’t save us, nor will our languages. No wall known to man can stop its spread. We’re all in this together — our human fragilities making us equal before the conflagration that is no respecter of differences.
Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.
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