Racism and iconoclasm share a common source
Everyone is free to rub David Hume’s toe in the wonderful city of Edinburgh.
The 18th Century Scottish philosopher and historian is regarded as one of the most important men of the Scottish Enlightenment and produced what is widely considered to be the best philosophy in the English language. He awoke us from ‘dogmatic slumbers’, admirably criticised natural religion and delivered a marvellous scepticism to the philosophical and scientific scene, helping to usher in the primacy of empiricism. Hume the man offered a gentle nature and congenial flare with some sensitivity and a keen wit. For all of this, you may find him sitting with some authority on the Royal Mile.
He was also a fat patronising racist.
I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still some- thing eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning, but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.
Racism by definition, this is some toxic stuff. Unfortunate from a great man like Hume, everyone with half a brain knows this quote has aged abysmally. How could such an enlightened and gentle Scotch proficient in heavy reading and friendship get it so wrong?
First, this cannot be brushed aside as a passing thought or mindless remark. Although this excerpt is merely a footnote in Hume’s Essay on National Characters (originally published in the middle of the 18th Century), scholars like Eugene F. Miller have helped show that it was the product of deliberate consideration. In fact, this footnote is the revised version by Hume. In the original version, Hume did not limit his racist remarks to ‘negroes’, but to all non-whites (all ‘four or five different kinds’ of them). If anything, then, Hume had a particular problem with black people that he both refused to put aside and reaffirmed. Although Hume was against slavery, he was impervious to arguments from contemporary thinkers like James Beattie who tried to appeal to racists by offering the grudging history of white people as evidence that black persons will shine if free or with time.
Second, then, it may not be easy for Hume fans like me to simply disregard his racist remarks as a sign of his time. His time. Hume was an extraordinary man who offered alternatives to and critique of prejudice, customs and dogma. He was built on empiricism, fighting against ignorance embedded in the time. That he was unable to master or even accept the fairly good arguments presented by lesser racists or anti-racists is disappointing to say the least. This is the case with many thinkers in the Enlightenment and intelligent persons since, and it shows that intelligence and perhaps even wisdom do not prove non-racism. This is a fact minority races have found frustrating and in some respects baffling. For all of us, it is still not entirely clear why many bastions of free speech, free thinkers and keen readers stuck with racism, even in the theoretical sense. Debates continue.
In some ways, the Enlightenment is a perplexing period of history. It made thinkers more confident if not arrogant. Driven by an urge to explore and enhance our increasing repertoire of knowledge, we had an obsession with categorising things, and we did not halt before people. Observing persons like ‘negroes’ (usually very much indirectly – that is, from questionable, biased or in any case terribly limited reports), we found types of men contrary to those of Europe and America wherein the Enlightenment was happening and where you could find Dante and Aristotle as examples from earlier times, not to mention the Renaissance, Shakespeare and Newton. In our empiricism we apparently sensed the causes of the supposed deficiencies in other men, these mostly being bodily inferiorities and vices in large part due to exotic climates making ‘negroes’ idle, lethargic and apish. These men fell far short of the ideal to which we were rapidly advancing in our increasingly rational state. Many thinkers of the Enlightenment struggled to distinguish between progression and evolution. The irony came in the celebration and excitement for future progress of the white race after its lull in the darkness while considering blacks to be disposed to backwardness on the evidence of differences and lack of development in the present. Thus, great men in Europe and America used the new birth of knowledge to harden pre-existing prejudices.
If black people are set free, will society be left to bloodshed initiated by uncivilised beasts, reversing all of the wonderful advances since the Enlightenment? For Thomas Jefferson, the risk was too high – any radical cures to racial inequality could prove infinitely worse than the disease. Although a slaveholder, Jefferson was uncomfortable with the concept of slavery, seeing it as morally depraved and at odds with the natural equality of men. He was open to blacks in America returning (perhaps by force) to Africa to avoid conflict in the new United States. So, Jefferson was part anti-racist, part big-time racist. Today, we see the ‘white flight’ phenomena as white persons move to more affluent communities in the face of blacker faces, although it must also be the case that nouveau riche whites simply move to more affluent areas, whereas blacks remain poorer. The police target blacks. The risk is too high not to, what could we, or they, do?
Now, it is understandable to be quite like this when somebody and worse, groups of persons, offer questionable facades. This is the case regardless of colour, but I recall stepping off a train into Birmingham for the first time and having quite the disconcerting, even overwhelming, experience. Birmingham comes as something of a shock to the uninitiated and it would be disingenuous for me to say that race plays no part whatsoever. Off with the fear, though, when one visits the affluent suburbs! Questionable facades tend to be poorer ones and those in ethnic minorities in this country and US tend to be poorer people. But this itself is rooted in ignorance and disadvantaged history. While there have been many superb individuals from all races who have fought hard to the top and it is by no means true that all white people have it easy, slaves (for example) did not have a great deal to pass onto their offspring. Matched with the remnants of unchallenged ignorance from authorities like Hume existing in society, ethnic minorities tend to face a steeper hill than their white peers from the start. As of 2018 at least, African Americans are about twice as likely to live below the poverty line than white and Asian Americans and ethnic minorities are significantly worse off than whites in this country. In the bookies of success and inequality, I would not put my mostly inherited money on this startling fact being mostly grounded in disparities of individual endeavour.
On the other hand and in the meantime, it is wrong to say that the police should not focus on communities where there is a statistically higher likelihood for crime to be committed, especially violent crime and theft. Similarly, it is not racist to close the floodgates to people more likely to disobey our enlightened laws. But these are on the beat measures that do not uproot deeper causes of injustice, reflected by the likes of Hume in their most primitive form. There need be no contradiction between these weed-clipping measures and harder uprooting endeavours. Unlike many of the men of the Enlightenment, we should clearly distinguish between progress, evolution and facts in the here and now.
As we dragged our feet on extreme forms of racism like slavery and drag our feet on far more subtle forms today, increasingly justified racial inequality (fully justified racial inequality I think we are unlikely to see in our lifetimes) has been deferred to newer generations. However, there is no simple solution to the problem today. We know something like slavery is clearly wrong, although it took some 100 years after the height of the Enlightenment to be abolished in America. Something like wealth distribution is far more controversial and necessarily would infringe on the property and opportunities of whites. ‘Quit! Distribute your (mostly inherited...) wealth!’ is what somewhat right wing trendies like Jordan Peterson may say, perhaps misunderstanding the question and not really answering it (multimillionaire liberal President Kennedy DESTROYED). Of course, the likes of President Kennedy understood that the goal is not to redistribute a great deal of wealth in one fell swoop, but to improve long-standing structures for the long-term such that everyone may get a Jaguar if they work hard and want one (Brian Clough may have been right on this one, but I am not fond of the materialism whereby people identify around nonsense like bloody Jaguars). I think Boris Johnson’s floundering bid to ‘level up’ the country is a good start since economic position and disadvantages by ethnic minority are intimately linked on a national level. But this should inspire a level up mindset where authorities within cities like London and Birmingham prioritise levelling up at a more local level.
But the ignorance at the root of racial problems is not in statues and does not emanate from them, nor should the statues act as reminders of any racism in those represented. Rather, the statues are symbols of things to be celebrated, things which have moved us on and have thus contributed to history, remaining with us today as if the best versions of the men and women who forwarded them are still alive. These include the plethora of insights offered by Hume and stable, modern government fought for by Jefferson. Intellectual and practical endeavours like these continue to benefit us all, and I am apt to assume that Hume and Jefferson are looking down happy to see them improve the lives of both ethnic minorities and whites in this overall more enlightened time (the ‘more’ increasingly under threat from the new batch of offendees taking offence from the wrong sources). The best parts of Hume and Jefferson have helped defeat their own worst parts.
In order to tackle ignorance, we should not be ignorant of the source of ignorance. It lies not in passive statues, legacies set in stone, but actively across society. Stones do not judge or account for anything. And even those who may celebrate any racism in anyone represented in stone will not be freed from their racism, for this is a problem within them that projects onto the statue, not the reverse. For all the symbolic euphoria, no fall of stone has been historical, including that of the Berlin Wall. Stones represent the mindsets behind them, where the history actually lies. Those who tear down statues express resentment or aggression, not a ready solution to racism (they even potentially jeopardise their cause). We can only weaken racism by better understanding the experiences of others in their complex contexts and ingeniously devising structural reforms. For that, modesty must prevail and the real causes must be recognised. The statues should and can easily remain.