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Debunking Dyson

Is history really a viable justification for the use of identity politics?

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K. Tymon Zhou | United States

How do you justify identity politics? Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown university sociology professor, uses history as a justification. Identity politics, in Dyson’s view, is a defensive response to historical injustices. During a recent interview, he declared that “When I check history, I think white people invented race.”  Dyson attacks his critics as historically ignorant, living in the “United States of Amnesia.” Dyson’s claim has a degree of validity. The United States has been historically dominated by whites. However, Dyson’s claim presents a false narrative that white Americans are uniquely guilty.

The idea that any one demographic group “invented” race is patently absurd.  Sociologists recognize that humans  instinctively gravitate towards group identities. Dyson’s claim that whites invented race as a group identity denies this universal principle. Henry Tajfel, a British social psychologist, demonstrated this in a 1970’s experiment.   Tajfel and his team organized a group of teens into completely arbitrary categories. The teens were told they were divided by artistic preference. Despite this arbitrary categorization, the teens persistently choose to give fake money to members of their own group. Group favoritism is a natural product of group identity, forming in-groups and out-groups. Consequently, cultural and philosophical justifications for racism are only mere outgrowths of this primal instinct. This extends beyond racial identity.  Non-European cultures created hierarchies of in-groups and out-groups within their own societies. West African slavery was centered on kinship, not racial identity. Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans enslaved prisoners of war. Such examples demonstrate that group identity resulting in oppression is hardly unique to whites.

Even if one accepts Dyson’s premise that whites invented race, there are gaps in his argument. If race is a white invention, then why did American minorities embrace the concept? In the 1830s, Cherokee Native Americans embraced slavery, asserting that they were equal to whites and superior to African-Americans. As Paul Chatt Smith, a museum curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, explains:

The Five Civilized Tribes were deeply committed to slavery, established their own racialized black codes, immediately reestablished slavery when they arrived in Indian territory, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebellions, and enthusiastically sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War.

If the idea of Native Americans owning slaves is shocking, African-Americans owning slaves is downright horrifying. Although, the number of African-American slave-holders was minuscule, a number became wealthy through slave labor. William Ellison, a black South Carolina planter, died owning 900 acres and 63 slaves in 1860. Ellison’s story is a perverse corruption of the American dream; he was born into slavery, but seems to have fully embraced the racial hierarchy of antebellum America. Moreover, free African-Americans were willing to fight for the Confederacy. The Louisiana Native Guards was formed by free African Americans.They asserted their loyalty to the southern cause:

  The free colored population [native] of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana … They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought [to defend New Orleans from the British] in 1814-1815.”

These examples demonstrate that whites were not alone in their racism. It had enshrouded and penetrated all segments of American society. One can make the argument that only a minority of Native Americans or African-Americans owned slaves.  However, the same was true of the American South, with only 25% of Southerners owning slaves. If one forgives the Cherokee and African-American slave-owners, one also must forgive their white peers.

These complex historical circumstances do not diminish the scope of injustice but it demonstrates that history is not a race-centered morality play. In Dyson’s narrative, whites alone are responsible for racial injustice. In reality, whites were acting on a universal group instinct in establishing in-groups and out-groups.  They were not alone in accepting racist dogmas and prejudices. Indeed, Dr. Dyson lives in the United States of Amnesia, not his opponents.


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