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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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In 1915, the same year that Kallen’s “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot” was published, Locke gave a series of lectures at Howard called “Race Contacts and Interracial Relations.” He began by citing the work of the man who had helped modify some of the conclusions people had drawn from Weissman’s experiment. This was Franz Boas, one of the fathers of cultural anthropology, and therefore, in a sense, the man who introduced cultural polytheism to the world. Boas had shown, in a physiological study of immigrants, that environment does have biological effects; and Boas was himself very much a cultural pluralist.

Locke argued that there was a distinction between difference and inequality. Racial difference is biological and racial inequality is social, but they are constantly confused. As Boas had said, it is illogical to prevent a group from developing a civilization and then to attribute its failure to develop a civilization to biological inferiority; but that is what Europeans had done to nonwhite races around the world. They had created a history of racial invidiousness, and then they had called it natural. Locke concluded—a conclusion drawn from his own experience at Oxford—that individuals are the bearers of that history, whether they choose to be or not. “When the modern man talks about race,” Locke said, “he is not talking about the anthropological or biological idea at all. He is really talking about the historical record of success or failure of an ethnic group. . . . [T]hese groups, from the point of view of anthropology, are ethnic fictions.”7

They are fictions whose effects are real enough, however. What Locke proposed was a way to make the fiction useful for minority ethnic groups. He did not think that those groups could improve their situation by maintaining separateness, as Kallen had advised in the case of European immigrants. For modern civilization does not tolerate separateness. “Modern systems are systems that require or seem to require social assimilation,” as Locke said. People may eat their ethnic food and wear their ethnic hats, but in the things that matter, they are obliged to adhere to the dominant standard. Modern societies, Locke said, “are not necessarily so arbitrary about their social culture as . . . earlier societies were, but they are at least arbitrary to this extent: that in the interests of what they call a common standard of living, common institutions, and a common heritage, they exact that a man who elects . . . to live in a modern society must adopt, more or less wholesale, the fundamental or cardinal principles of that social culture.”8

Still, if it is a mistake to cling to ethnic identity, it is also a mistake to abandon it. The trick is to use it in order to overcome it. “The group needs . . . to get a right conception of itself,” Locke said, “and it can only do that through the stimulation of pride in itself. Pride in itself is race pride, and race pride seems a rather different loyalty from the larger loyalty to the joint or common civilization type. Yet . . . through a doctrine of racial solidarity and culture, you really accelerate and stimulate the alien group to rather more rapid assimilation of the . . . general social culture, than would otherwise be possible.”9 Although racial identity has no basis in biology, and although racial pride is, by itself, socially divisive, the only way to overcome social divisiveness is to stimulate racial pride, to encourage minority ethnic groups to take satisfaction in their particular practices and achievements. The desire to be accepted as like everyone else—the desire to meet the “common standard”—flows from the desire to be recognized as different from everyone else. You want to prove that your group is as good as every other group. The elegance of Locke’s formulation is that neither human sameness nor human difference is treated as real and essential. They are defined functionally. Universality and diversity are both effects of social practice. They are not given in nature; they are outcomes of what people do.

Horace Kallen and Alain Locke were both students of William James, who is best known today as one of the founders of the philosophy known as pragmatism. Pragmatism today is associated by some people with the denial of truth and objectivity, and it therefore can seem anti-empirical and anti-scientific. But the two most important figures in the development of pragmatism were both trained as scientists—William James and his friend Charles Sanders Peirce. James began teaching at Harvard in 1874 in the physiology department. His field was experimental psychology. He came to philosophy late in his career.

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