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mark kingwell

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.


American cities are ruled by a geography of race, neighbourhoods carved into racial enclaves by habit and tacit acknowledgment. In Chicago, where I rode the CTA Green Line during a recent two-month stay, outbound trips from the Loop were predominantly black – until Austin station, after which the cars drained of everyone except the two or three white people on their way to tony Oak Park. Who needs gates?

No surprise, then, that race is the subtext of most political conversation in the United States, especially in the long run up to the November elections. Every move of the mostly white presidential contenders has been racially inflected, from Donald Trump's bizarre waffling over his endorsement from former KKK grand wizard David Duke (at one point denying familiarity with the entire notion of white supremacy) to the mocking of Bernie Sanders, proven civil-rights advocate, with the #berniesoblack hashtag.

Why does race matter so much, anyway? Despite the deranged ideas of 18th-century philosophers, Nazi eugenicists and David Duke, it shouldn't. The range of human racial difference is minuscule: some insignificant physical characteristics, most of them thinned by generations of miscegenation. Sexual dimorphism is far more drastic; differences in bodily or cognitive function more widely spread.

Race really is one of those things conservatives love to hate: a social construct. The significant aspects of this construct, though, are its visibility and cultural difference. These distill a powerful brew of fear in our primate brains, exciting revulsion and violent thoughts about the tiniest shades of otherness, a visceral manifestation of Freud's "narcissism of minor differences." Add a history of slavery and oppression, and racial categories begin to feel woven into the fabric of things. Finding yourself suddenly the minority is a good reminder that this is mostly a matter of nasty contingency. What is a white person except not-black, the last guy on the train?

As long as these contingencies hold, it can still be fatal to meet a white police officer while (a) being black and (b) holding a toy gun, or simply being large. And yet, as Academy Awards host Chris Rock pointed out, the most common danger today is not lynching or shooting but "sorority racism" – "We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa." If Hollywood is racist like that, then so are most institutions, places, people, books, Twitter feeds and dogs.

Consider that non-Hispanic whites made up 63 per cent of the U.S. population in 2010, an all-time low; the black population was just over 12 per cent; Hispanics made up about 17 per cent, Asians 5 per cent. In Canada, immigration-driven changes have been faster, but non-white arrivals are heavily concentrated (approximately 70 per cent) in urban areas. Like Toronto and Vancouver, Chicago may see a white minority by 2031, even as the continent as a whole is still far from diverse.

Is the solution a "postracial" society, blind to colour and bogus judgments of difference? Would that it were so. Unfortunately, too many comfortable postracialists are self-appointed allies of struggle, who should remember that they don't get to be not-white just because they have achieved personal tolerance. Demographics alone are an uncertain vehicle of change, and rainbow populations no guarantee of harmony and justice – sometimes quite the opposite.

The presumed liberal goal for diverse societies is universal equality, but identity politics seems compelled to tout essential differences. The best response to this long-standing philosophical double-bind isn't what Mr. Rock suggested: more opportunity, especially in Hollywood's tiny self-regarding gene pool. Opportunity is too often a rigged game, another frat mixer where you get stuck in the corner with the other squares.

Instead, we need to challenge the very idea that random differential traits – skin colour, physical beauty, penises – should generate outcomes unrelated to them, such as wealth, power and status. Racism is stupid as well as dangerous, a conceptual error frozen into intellectual sludge. The solution is not more identity but more imagination, including for differences we haven't yet encountered.

Without that, the postracial society will remain a sci-fi dream, like crew rosters on Star Trek or the bar scenes in Star Wars. And even there – well, we like you, C-3PO, but you're … not an organic.

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