Does Race Antagonism Serve Any Good Purpose (1914)

Does Race Antagonism Serve Any Good Purpose (1914)

There are four classes of reasons usually given in defense of Race Antagonism.

  1. It is an instinctive repulsion from something harmful and is, therefore, a subtle condition of ultimate survival.

The difficulty with this theory is that it does not square with the facts: race antipathy is not instinctive but a matter of careful education. Black and white children play together gladly and know no prejudice until it is implanted precept upon precept and by strong social pressure; and when it is so implanted it is just as strong in cases where there is no physical difference as it is where physical differences are striking. The racial repulsion in the Balkans among peoples of practically the same blood is to-day greater than it was between whites and blacks on the Virginia plantations.

  1. Racial antagonism, whether instinctive or not, is a reasonable measure of self-defense against undesirable racial traits.

This second proposition is the one which usually follows careful examination of the first. After all, it is admitted “instinct” is an unimportant fact. Instincts are simply accumulated reasons in the individual or in the race. The reasons for antagonizing inferior races are clear and may be summed up as follows:

  • Poor health and stamina.
  • Low ability.
  • Harmful ideals of life.

We are now on surer ground because we can now appeal to facts. But no sooner do we make this appeal than we are astonished to find that there are surprising little data: Is it true that the Negro as a physical animal is inferior to the white man or is he superior? Is the high death rate of the Indian a proof of his poor physique or is it proof of wretched conditions of life which would long ago have killed off a weaker people? And, again, is spiritual superiority always in direct proportion to physical strength in races any more than in individuals? Connected with this matter of health comes the question of physical beauty, but surely, if beauty were to become a standard of survival how small our world population would be!

It is argued, however, that it may be granted that the physical stamina of all races is probably approximately the same and that physical comeliness is rather a matter of taste and selection than of absolute racial difference. However, when it comes to intellectual ability the races differ so enormously that superior races must in self-defense repel the inferior sternly, even brutally. Two things, however, must be said in answer to this: First, the prejudice against the Jews, age long and world wide is surely not based on inferior ability. We have only to name Jeremiah, D’Israeli and Jesus Christ to set our minds at rest on that point. Moreover, if we compare the intellectual ability of Teuton and Chinese which is inferior? Or, if we take Englishman and Bantu, a difference of native ability or of training and environment? The answer to this is simple: We do not know. But arguing from all known facts and anologies we must certainly admit in the words of the secretary of the First International Races Congress, that “an impartial investigator would be inclined to look upon the various important peoples of the world as, to all intents and purposes, essentially equals in intellect, enterprise, morality and physique.”

  1. Racial antipathy is a method of Race Development.

We may admit so far as physique and native ability go, that as Ratzel says: “There is only one species of man; the variations are numerous, but do not go deep.” At the same time it is plain that Europe has out-stripped China in civilization, and China has out-stripped Africa. Here at least are plain facts. Is not racial antipathy a method of maintaining the European level of culture? But is it necessary for the runner to hate and despise the man he is outdistancing? Can we only maintain culture in one race by increasing barbarism in others? Does it enhance the “superiority” of white men to allow them to steal from yellow men and enslave black men and reduce colored women to concubinage and prostitution? Surely not. Admitting that in the world’s history again and again this or that race has out-stripped another in culture, it is impossible to prove that inherent racial superiority was the cause or that the level of culture has been permanently raised in one race by keeping other races down.

  1. Race Antipathy is a method of group specialization.

This argument admits the essential equality of races but insists on the difference in gifts and argues that antipathy between races allows each to develop its own peculiar gifts and aptitudes. Does it? That depends on the “antipathy.” If antipathy means the enslaving of the African, the exploitation of the Chinese, the peonage of Mexicans and the denial of schools to American Negroes then it is hard to see where the “encouragement” comes in. If it means the generous encouragement of all men according to their gifts and ability then why speak of race “antipathy” or encourage it? Let us call it Human Uplift and Universal Brotherhood and be done with it.

Such are the arguments. Most persons use all four at once and skillfully skip from one to the other. Each argument has in other days been applied to individuals and social classes, but we have outgrown that. We apply it to-day to “races” because race is a vague, unknown term which may be made to cover a multitude of sins. After all, what is a “Race?” and how many races are there? Von Luschan, one of the greatest of modern anthropologists, says: “The question of the number of human races has quite lost its raison d’ etre, and has become a subject rather of philosophic speculation than of scientific research.” What we have on earth is men. Shall we help them or hinder them? Shall we hate and kill them or love and preserve and uplift them? Which method will do us most good? This is the real question of “Race” antipathy.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1914. “Does Race Antagonism Serve Any Good Purpose.” The Crisis. 8(5):232–233.