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Why Race Matters

In my 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things, in a chapter on race and racism, I summarized the scientific research to date on the subject. My deeper motive in this exercise was my belief that in my lifetime we could achieve—or at least approach in an asymptotic curve—a post-race society in which such superficial characteristics as skin color, hair color and form, and facial traits would be considered the least important thing to know about a person. Nearly twenty years later, in my book The Moral Arc, I suggested that we had made so much moral progress toward this end that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” was at last coming true and so, I concluded, “we are living in the most moral period in our species’ history.”

How naïve I was. Conversations about and coverage of race and race-related incidents have since become omnipresent in our culture, from social media to mainstream media. Government, corporate, and academic collection of data on all matters race has become ubiquitous, driven further along by racial (and gender) sensitivity training programs, of which I have partaken.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) literature on systemic racism is both riding and fueling this cultural pattern, loaded as it is with discussions about racial group differences on everything from income and family wealth to the percentage of black professors in STEM fields. What percentage of STEM professors have brown eyes, blue eyes, hazel eyes, and green eyes (pace Jane Elliott’s famous experiment)? How many brunettes, blonds, and redheaded professors are there in STEM? Who knows? Who cares? Why are these superficial characteristics considered meaningless, whereas equally frivolous features like skin color, hair color and form, and facial traits are proxies for everything from intelligence and personality to moral worth and social value? The answer is obvious. Race and racism as manifested in slavery, segregation, lynchings, Jim Crow, redlining, profiling, and police brutality is America’s original sin, whereas we have no history of prejudice and bigotry based on eye or hair color. How did we get to this point and how can we get past it?

To shed light on these very important issues, for this special issue of Skeptic we have compiled numerous perspectives on these crucial issues, including: a broad overview of systemic racism and the extensive evidence for it by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Susan T. Fiske and Douglas S. Massey, showing that even though most Americans today are far less racist in their social attitudes than they were decades ago, many baked-in social, political, and economic policies continue to operate and account for many of the Black-White differences in income, wealth, housing, employment, health outcomes, longevity, and quality of life; Chris Ferguson gives us an analysis of the role of the news media in declining race relations; Kevin McCaffree presents a data-driven look at race and policing and debunks the many myths associated with it; Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay offer a politically-neutral historical overview of CRT and its origins in postmodernism, albeit moderately skeptical of what adopting the overall worldview of CRT and antiracism can actually do to close the gaps in these race differences; Jason Hill presents a powerful soliloquy to America as the land of opportunity to all people, including POC and immigrants like himself, and why he doesn’t think Whites owe anything to Blacks; Stephen Bloom contributes an excerpt from his new book on Jane Elliott’s famous “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” Experiment with her third-grade students in which she divided them by eye color to teach them about prejudice, and what it teaches us about prejudice, race-relations, and race sensitivity training programs, much of which Bloom is skeptical of; and Harriet Hall’s column on race and medicine clarifies many misconceptions about what role race plays in modern medical science.

In general, while acknowledging the very real issues that remain with our racially divided country today, I remain optimistic that the positive trends that I documented in The Moral Arc will continue moving in the right directions, even if occasionally herky-jerky in their progress. The moral arc may not be bending toward justice as smoothly upward as we would like, but as members of the Silent Generation (born 1925–1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) and Gen Xers (born 1965–1981) are displaced by Millennials (born 1982–1996) and Gen Zers (born 1997–2012), and as post-secondary education levels keep climbing, such prejudices will continue to wane and the moral sphere expand toward greater inclusiveness.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to pen an article titled “Why Race Doesn’t Matter.” Until then, we give you what matters about race. END

About the Images Above

Upper left: From a series of racist posters attacking radical Republican exponents of black suffrage, issued during the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, characterizing Democrat H. Clymer’s platform as “for the White Man” in contrast with J.W. Geary’s platform as “for the Negro.” Lower left: Rally at state capitol protesting the integration of Central High School (Little Rock, 1959). Protesters carry U.S. flags and signs reading “Race Mixing is Communism” and “Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ.” (Credit: Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection). Right: Pears’ Soap ad, “Matchless for the complexion,” circa 1880s, depicts a White boy washing the dark skin color off a Black boy. (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the podcast The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He writes a weekly Substack column. He regularly contributes opinion editorials, book reviews, and essays to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. His latest book is: Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

This article was published on November 10, 2022.

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