White supremacy or evolution?

We've been hearing a lot about white supremacy and how each and every white person in the United States is implicated no matter what his sentiments are towards people "of color." 

In fact, it's being asserted with increasing vigor that not only do Caucasians experience a deeply rooted privilege simply because they are white — a privilege about which they are completely oblivious — but that many of the habits and practices that white people engage in are thoroughly bound up in racism and the maintenance of a white hegemony in the United States.

Although for decades people have been trying to expose the subtle — and sometimes nearly invisible — forms of racism that contribute to racial injustice, the characteristics that have recently been deemed signs of white supremacy are well beyond what we could possibly call "subtle."

In fact, these fresh targets are quite startling because most of them are essential characteristics necessary for individual — and communal — success.  Those habits and personal characteristics currently in the racialist's crosshairs are part of the basic equipment that all civilized people everywhere possess, after having developed them over the millennia.

This new and extraordinary angle on racism was brought to the public's attention in the spring of 2020 because of the media outcry in reaction to a website belonging to the Smithsonian's African American History Museum.  In a section on "Whiteness" under a subsection titled "Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness in the United States," a pictorial graph appeared delineating aspects of white culture that those associated with the museum believe to sustain white supremacy.

Just a few of those characteristics (or values) listed as specific to white people and which enable their dominance in our culture were a belief in rugged individualism; respect for authority; a belief in the Protestant work ethic, specifically a value for hard work and putting work before play; history; and planning for the future. 

Now, the museum removed the questionable graphic shortly after the media hullabaloo, but these opinions remain in circulation and are part of the philosophical background to the anti-racism training sessions now taking place all over the country.

Further opinions about the cultural factors maintaining white supremacy came just this past spring from the influential National Council on Family Relations.  The organization made clear its belief that the traditional two-parent family represents "family privilege" because the white, nuclear family unit provides invisible advantages that further enable white supremacy.  Especially problematic for the organization is the fact that the two-parent family is viewed by our culture as "superior" to all other family structures.

Now let's take a step back and consider just two of these claims against the history of mankind's development.  

Early humans emerged from Africa in waves of migrations that spanned millennia, and in each migration, these human predecessors differed slightly in their anatomical and intellectual development.  But what remained the same at each evolutionary stage was the fact that the immediate family was the basic organizational unit for survival.  Why?  Well, for one, it took a long time for humans to discover the value of living in larger kinship groups.  But of even greater significance is the biological fact that mankind has the most extended childhood of all animals and requires caretaking for a considerably longer period of time than other offspring.  Thus, parents and their children were the first, natural, unit of survival.

Interestingly, this fact has metaphorical meaning for Jacob Bronowski, for in the last episode of his series The Ascent of Man he ponders mankind's lengthy childhood and contends that it is a very long period of delayed action in service of preparation — in the child's case, for adulthood, but also in the development of the brain.

He makes much of the fact that the frontal lobes allow for a function unique to humans: it is the area of the brain where we plan future actions whose results (or rewards) are not immediately obvious.

Although mapping the brain has advanced considerably since the early seventies, when Bronowski created this series, I find this take interesting because his view links the imperative of a family unit with "planning for the future," bringing me to my next point.

Consider the last ice age in Europe, when those erstwhile Africans, now modern humans, hunted and gathered in spring and fall and collected foodstuffs for the coming winter.  According to Brian Fagan in his Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, one of the things early men and women did in an impressive evolutionary adaptation was to collect reindeer fat from the reindeer they slaughtered during the fall hunt.  It was an involved process that entailed mashing and boiling the bones in order to extract the resulting grease and store it in leather bags.  This was done in order to have fat available to melt and then drink in the winter when there wasn't much of anything else around in the bitterly cold, snow-laden European winters.  According to Fagan, that fat kept humans alive during those long months of scarcity.

Now, when I ponder these two points side by side — the absolute necessity of a family structure to human development and the deeply ingrained, practical need to plan for the future — I'm impelled to ask: were those bags of fat that our African ancestors prepared well in advance of winter evidence of white supremacy, or evidence of the most important supremacy of all: that of life over death?

Image: Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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