Primary Colors

“Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world!
Red and yellow black and white
they are precious in His sight!
Jesus loves the little children of the world!”

Some of the biggest errors are often mingled with, intentionally or unintentionally, some of the greatest truths. We used to sing this little song ad nauseum (excuse me ad infinitum) in the 1970s. It is beyond argument in my view that Jesus does indeed love the children of the world and that they are precious in His sight. They are even colored — broadly — in the brief list of what passes for primary colors (this song was written years before brown burst into the ranks as one of the primary colors) in the racialist view of humanity.

I tell my students often that our views of race are relatively modern even though the sins racism covers — envy, bitterness, hatred, pride, sloth, et al. — are literally as old as the hills. The song above was popular with children because it is catchy and it is simple. It is also simplistic. Eventually one is supposed to mature beyond the simple idea that while Jesus loves everybody, He also allows suffering, pain, and even unleashes His wrath against many of them — ad infinitum. The same concept applies to the laundry list of colors. For a 4-year old — primary colors are fine. Even the blocks and Crayons are mostly in 4 primary colors until one matures into a broader aesthetic palette for arts and crafts. Somehow we have failed — at the highest levels of our civilization — to mature beyond this temptation for simplistic color palettes when it comes to race.

I also tell my students that not only are our views of race modern, they are also childish (as opposed to childlike). Babies think and create in primary colors. Reasonable and mature persons (the Creator — the Primary Colorer first of all) think and create in a wide array of shades. Each individual hue has no inherent worth absent its use by the creator. In creating they are usually — except for childish artists — in mixture with other shades to even further expand the palette. The end result is Beauty… diversity in service of Community. The 256 Crayola box better reflects truth than the 8-color box. The primary colors we talk about are really no where to be found in humanity as pure concepts. I’ve never seen white, black, brown, red, or yellow in covering the bones, sinews, and organs of any human — ever. We of course, use the colors not to create beauty, but to create division. Division and diversity come from the same root of course, but so do community and communism.

Most people — even most conservative people (and most of my fellow Christians) have drunk so deeply from the racialist Kool-Aid that it is almost impossible to get them to even consider seeing the world as it is and should be, much less have a productive conversation about it. I don’t teach the subjects where I can justify diving deeply into the topic without neglecting the subject students paid to learn, but I do what I can.

I was reminded of this op-ed in The New York Times from 2013 the other day on this very topic — where did our notions of race come from? Well… like many of our current issues they are products of Enlightenment spin on old sins. Has there always been racism? Sure, but not in the way we think of it. Tribalism, family prejudice, religious bigotry, etc…. those are hatreds based on inherent traits of course. I’m not sure if seeing the world in its myriad colors will resolve all disputes, but in talking about race the way we do — we are talking about the wrong things and in the wrong way.

I may be, of course, completely wrong about this. I wrestle with it often, especially in the last decade or so. I desperately want to move beyond talk about race… not because I think everything is A-OK and we need to get over it. As long as fallen mankind inhabits this fallen planet we will have division on traits that are in none’s ability control. But there’s no way to move forward without changing the direction of the conversation I think. I am educable on the issue.

In any case… from the February 10, 2013 New York Times… The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem and Ours by Justin Smith.

In 1734, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former chamber slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind.” A dedicatory letter was appended from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who praised “the natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning,” and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things.” Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.

In the following decade, the Scottish philosopher David Hume would write: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”

Hume had not heard of Amo, that much is clear. But we can also detect a tremendous difference between Hume’s understanding of human capacities and that of Kraus: the author of Amo’s dedicatory letter doesn’t even consider the possibility of anchoring what individual human beings are capable of doing to something as arbitrary as “complection.” For Kraus, Amo represents a continent and its long and distinguished history; he does not represent a “race.”

Another two decades on, Immanuel Kant, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the modern period, would manage to let slip what is surely the greatest non-sequitur in the history of philosophy: describing a report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”

8 comments to Primary Colors

  • I’ve always been interested in the Bible’s view of race. There’s plenty of national and religious enmity in the Bible, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to despise anyone else merely because of skin color. The exception may be Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman, but we’re not actually told what Aaron’s and Miriam’s objection was in that case. The bride in the Song of Solomon seems to be black, and is considered very desirable. There’s a passage somewhere admiring the glossy skin of Africans. The people of the Bible aren’t colorblind, they just have no theory about color. They judge each other on other grounds.

  • As I said in another post, what we call “race” means nothing – it’s just melanin. White, black, Asian etc. people are not different species from each other, they just look different. We get that mixed up with other factors that actually matter and can be judged thoughtfully – culture, national history, religion, etc. You can say, for example, that there are fundamental differences between European and Asian cultures, but those differences won’t necessarily apply to an Asian person who was born and raised in Europe, or a white person who was born and raised in Japan.

    The problem is, skin color is something so clearly noticeable that our minds register it before we register a person’s personality, values, etc. I don’t know if that’s a part of human nature that we’ll ever be able to truly overcome, but a good start would be if we all could take a breath, stop to appreciate just how much real progress we’ve made in the last 50 years, and agree to build on that rather than dragging up old issues from history that don’t even affect us anymore.

  • Rufus

    Like you three this is a subject I too think about often. My opinions change, and sometimes, as my thoughts mature I find myself returning to opinions I held earlier. Lately I’m of the mindset that racism is mainly an internal issue. A group determines whether it is to be perceived as a group, or not, and then determines what that perception will be.

    Imagine you are walking on a sidewalk and you see three figures walking towards you. You notice they are wearing hoodies, jeans sagging below their hips. They are walking slowly, purposefully and swaggering. As you get closer you notice all three are Asian. They are looking right at you and not smiling.

    Imagine you are walking on a sidewalk and you see three figures walking towards you. You notice they are wearing cashmere sweaters over collared dress shirts, khaki slacks belted on their hips and white Keds. They are walking with a spring in their step, talking animatedly among one another, laughing. They carry text books under their arms. As you get closer you notice all three are African-American. One of them briefly meets your eyes and smiles, before turning back towards the other two.

    • Rufus

      African-Americans are as varied as any other American. There are black opera singers and classical musicians, black lacrosse players, black chess players. There are white, Asian, Mexican, Puerto Rican thugs and punks.

      African-Americans have to be more vocal about being stereo-typed, even when African-Americans do it. There are Asians in prison, there are Asian gangs, but when a TV show features those outliers Asian-Americans write in and protest. They let people know their community is diverse and they clean up their own communities.

      I’m Polish. I’ve heard every Polish joke there is. Hell, my own dad (who isn’t Polish) even mocked my intelligence, claiming it was “my mother’s side” every time I did something he thought was foolish. I didn’t complain. I didn’t whine. I decided that stereotype was not going to define me. I read books, I worked hard in school. I became erudite. I decided what I was going to be, and my Polish mother certainly wasn’t going to raise her son to be dumb. She made sure I was educated, hard-working and respectful. No victimhood for me.

      Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans do the same and they need to stop letting whites and others stereotype their “race.” “Thug-life” is not African-American life. African-Americans need to flood newsrooms with letters of complaint when they paint their community with negative stereotypes and they need to police their communities and chastise their neighbors who do the same. If one of my Polish grandparents’ Polish neighbors didn’t keep up their property, or played music too loud, or had shiftless kids my grandparents would confront them and get things straightened out. They policed their own community as did most of their neighbors.

  • 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 (KJV)

    14For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: 15And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.

    16Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. 17Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 18And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.

    20Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. 21For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

    There are only two races of man to God, the new race (or kingdom, or nation) of Christ and the unregenerate (the damned) race. Wheat and tares, diversity boils down to the harvest and the trash.

    Preach Christ and live your convictions!

  • Rufus

    As usual, I write a couple thousand words, and then engage my brain and think about the subject. Ready, fire, aim!

    What I mean is:
    This seems to be predominantly the media’s fault.
    There are many people in the black community who are not victims and will punch anyone in the mouth who tries to convince them they are. JimmyC posted a video a few days ago with a young woman’s response to the statue silliness that is a great example of that.

    People do speak up in black communities. Just as some residents of Ferguson, Missouri made public statements thanking the police for being in their community, and stating that they would like an even greater police presence in their community. But that’s not the story most media outlets want to spin, so that story rarely gets told.

    People, especially black people, need to make a concentrated and concerted effort to call the media out when they try to portray an issue in their community as simple and cartoonish. The media is perpetuating stereotypes and telling a false tale of victimhood to sell soap and get mouse clicks. It needs to stop. It’s not a game and real people are suffering.