Micah Henning

On Race and Language

Recently, I read the first few articles in the Harvard Classics reading list. The first was a nice introduction to the history of the world by one Professor Robert Johnston, and the second a brief introduction to ancient history by Professor William Ferguson. They were well-written works that were reasonably easy to follow, despite them having been written more than one hundred years ago.

What I want to talk about, however, is the extraordinary article titled Race and Language by Oxford history professor Edward Freeman. I have not been able to determine the date in which he wrote this essay--quite possibly in 1879, if not a few years earlier. In this essay Freeman purports that language alone cannot be used to accurately determine a person's race. He goes on to say that there is no truly pure race, since families adopt, individuals naturalize, and through war cultures assimilate.

To me, the general premise of his essay is that the biological "pureness" of a race cannot be guaranteed, and the non-physical components used in assuming a person's race, such as language or religion, are presumed and learned, possibly for religious or political gain:

"The doctrine of race is essentially an artificial doctrine, a learned doctrine. It is an inference from facts which the mass of mankind could never have found out for themselves; facts which, without a distinctly learned teaching, could never be brought home to them in any intelligible shape."

Regarding those who use their fallacious definitions of race for religious or political gain:

"I must emphatically say that nothing can be more shallow, nothing more foolish, nothing more purely sentimental, than the talk of those who think that they can simply laugh down or shriek down any doctrine or sentiment which they themselves do not understand."

I would argue that since nothing can be reliably used to determine a person's race, inherently, there cannot be any definition for race. Even so, with or without a universal definition for race I would go on to argue that there cannot be any fruitful gain for establishing a race of people, for therein creates an arbitrary binary and therefore reason for one group of people to fight another. The concept of race-in-common has been the cause of both war and alliance throughout history, to no gain of anyone who ever lived.

It is for this reason that I wholeheartedly condemn any accusation of an honest person doing something on account of race, just as much as I condemn a person for actually doing something on account of race. All people should treat and be treated equally, as a general rule.

In the context of diversity, let me further argue that the aggregation of members from various races does not actually guarantee diversity; biological diversity is not the same as social diversity, or cultural diversity. Joining members of different cultures, who therein represent people from their cultural backgrounds, is what ensures the benefits of diversity in thoughts, actions, opinions, and the like.

I think to segue to education would strengthen the meaningfulness of this essay. If the primary focus of education were to eradicate ignorance, and therefore the making of decisions on account of that ignorance, then perhaps major catastrophes could have been avoided. For too long ignorant imperialists have destroyed mankind en masse, all on account of their concepts of race, as arbitrary and meaningless as they were. More than fifty years after the writing of this essay, Adolf Hitler would declare a so-called "perfect race" while exterminating another. Here in the United States around 75 years after the writing of this essay, a less emphatic equivalence commenced: the resistance to the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps a proper education could have averted these both.

That being said, I further enjoyed Freeman's definition of history:

History is the politics of the past, and politics are the history of the present.