Culture… and Race

Over the years, even centuries, people, and even learned scholars, have offered various rationales about “race,” either saying essentially that all generalizations about race and racial traits are false, or at the other extreme, claiming that racial heritage is a significant determinant of such individual traits as intelligence, muscular ability or lack thereof, industriousness… and the list is sometimes endless. In the course of finishing my latest SF novel [The One-Eyed Man, which I just turned in and my editor hasn’t even begun to read], I thought a great deal about why people are the way they are, and what factors influence them.

On Earth, civilizations have risen, and they’ve fallen, and there have been pretty impressive civilizations raised by peoples of various colors. Ancient Egypt boasted one of the largest and most long-lasting of the early civilizations, indeed of any civilization to date.  The Nubians of the eighth century B.C. were strong enough to topple the Egyptians and ruled all the way from the southern Sudan to the sea and much of the southeastern Mediterranean.  There are massive ruins in central eastern African embodying huge palatial complexes that had to represent a large organized state.  The various Mayan civilizations not only represented an intricate and complex civilization but one with a mathematics involved enough to create a calendar that would be largely accurate for tens of thousands of years. The Aztecs and the Incas created significant empires despite lack of critical resources (such as beasts of burden and transportation).  Archeologists have now discovered traces of ancient large cities in the United States, along with significant earthworks and plazas.   At one time, the Chinese empire was without peer anywhere.  The most advanced sciences in the world at one time were Islamic. Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean basin for hundreds of years.

All of these civilizations had differing “racial” backgrounds, but all were great and advanced in their time. If one looks at modern industrial nations, the vast majority have individuals of virtually every racial background who have great accomplishments. Yet the Mayan civilizations of 1500 years ago vanished without a trace.  The great African civilizations are long gone.  So is the Roman Empire. Egypt has been an impoverished backwater for hundreds of years.

Historians will give many answers, and all too often the most common answer among most people is that “they got conquered.”  That’s true in some cases, as in the instance of the Aztecs and the Incas, but it most instances, the civilization collapsed from within, sometimes under pressure, sometimes not.  One of the most interesting and, I believe, revealing cases is that of the Mayan city-states in the northern Yucatan area. Although they had developed sophisticated water gathering and use systems and weathered extreme droughts in the past, another drought finished them off.  The people dispersed, from not a few cities and towns, but from thousands… and they never returned, leaving the magnificent ruins we see today.  While there is some evidence of battle and brutality… in most cases, that doesn’t appear.

What I found intriguing was that the final decline of the Maya coincided with the rise of a new, and more brutal, and perhaps even more fundamentalist religion, the worship of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl.  I’m not about to blame the decline on just that, but I do think it points out that the decline of almost every past great civilization is linked to a change in the “culture” of that civilization.  One can date the decline of the great Chinese empire to the time when a new emperor burned the entire fleet – the greatest in the world, that had explored the Pacific and all the way to east Africa.  Did that emperor change culture?  It’s more likely he reflected that change, but with that change from outward-looking to inward-looking, the decline proceeded.  At one time, the greatest scientists in the world were Islamic, and the western European world learned from them.  Then… over a few decades, that intellectually open culture closed, and the Islamic world went into a long and slow decline.

Too often, it seems to me, those people who profile “race” aren’t profiling race at all.  They’re profiling culture.  Like it or not, all too few blacks coming from U.S. inner city backgrounds, especially young males, are all that successful, and the murder rate is astounding. Is that racial? I doubt it.  Is it just poverty?  I doubt that as well. It can’t be racial, because very few black males who are raised outside the inner city culture demonstrate the traits of inner city black males, and one can also see similar traits of violence and anti-social behaviors in other impoverished groups, but they’re not identical because poor white culture isn’t the same as poor black culture… but it’s the culture that makes the difference, not the racial background.

And, like it or not, some cultures are toxic. The Ku Klux Klan is a toxic culture.  So, frankly is the current inner city black culture.  So is the pure white Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint culture.  So was the Nazi culture, and there are certainly others that could be named.  Not all cultures or subcultures are worthy of preservation or veneration, regardless of the diversity movements that are so popular among certain groups…  but I think it’s well past time time to make the clear distinction between culture/subculture and race.


19 thoughts on “Culture… and Race”

  1. Tim says:

    A friend visited recently and brought with him many mp3 tracks of rap artists. After an hour of this, I stated that this music was “not my culture”. The response was that I was a racist.

    British museums have been criticised for catering to white, middle class, educated people only. This caused an appeal for visitors to be “creative” ( esp in assessing their cultural background) when responding to museum questionnaires. The problem is that black immigrants – even if 200 years ago – do not really relate to Roman and mediaeval Britain or anything before the 1800s (ie recent history) and why should they? Also, the people who visit museums tend to be mainly those who value and appreciate them – I.e. generally middle class ( so-called) and educated.

    There is now a Black Cultural Museum in London, and rightly so. But if I choose not to visit it, am I a racist?

    1. No. You’re not. We don’t call people who dislike classical music racists, although some who like rock and rap call those who prefer classical music elitists. Not liking or “appreciating” the art of another culture isn’t racist. Destroying it usually is, unless the “art” consists of graffiti painted on someone else’s property without permission.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    This is one of the best essays on race and culture I’ve ever read. Clear, concise, and spot on the dot. Thank you.

  3. Jim S says:

    Some very important points presented here. I know people of black Americans who take great offense to the title “African American.” Their families have been in the United States of America longer than mine; they’ll tell you that they are Americans who happen to be black or have family roots generations back in Africa. They don’t have any real connection to Africa.

    It’s dangerously easy to classify these cultural points by race or appearance, and it’s a trap that’s very tempting to fall into. But it’s dangerous to make that leap, since, in truth, the two are generally only coincidentally related. The black (or Asian kids) I grew up in my Virginia suburb have much more in common with me and with other whites from similar communities around the country than they would a black kid who grew up in Anacostia or Harlem.

    One thought, though… with the internet and other forms of media spreading some of these cultures outside their “homes” — I can’t help but ask if we aren’t seeing more cases of people finding a culture that like or somehow are attracted to or identify with, wherever it may be, rather than simply assimilating the culture they are surrounded by.

  4. Bain says:

    Supreb and well written essay, I am so glad you touch on this subject.

  5. Hob says:

    I’d have to disagree about the various cultures being responsible and instead argue that power structures between humans are based on relative value. If at anytime the relative value shifts incorrectly, those who stand to lose their value, become more willing to destroy that which is causing the shift.

    As much as we like to think there are separate cultures, the real difficulty and rational for having people look similar to each other within a power structure is limiting and identifying structural shift from additional parties.

    We are creatures of habit, the problems of why a shift is occurring within a power-structure is often blamed on external forces–whereas the shift occurs simply when within power-structures the ‘belief’ that look the same, think the same, do the same, is subjected to relative value.

    Remember, relative value, paradoxically requires multiple shifts to maintain itself within a power-structure–When power-structures are next to other power-structures, maintaining relative value between structures causes a type of inflexibility that does not exist had their not been another power structure/structures.

    So, despite poor urban America having a ‘toxic’ culture, the same toxic culture becomes more far reaching and encompassing, raising its value disproportionately to its economic clout globally than the innovative cultures of modern American engineers/scientists. That same toxic culture now allows for various inputs from other culture individuals who now identify with it to stronger degree than their own cultures. Sound familiar?

    So, to end, culture and race are just two types of power-structures, not the only types–it is the shift that requires these structures to keep going. Rather than a culture/race being responsible for heaven or hell, it is the individuals within cultures/race who for whatever reason constantly reject their culture/race while simultaneously believing they belong to a greater version of it. One that most likely does not exist, except in hope and stories.

    1. Hob — You’ve come up with an elaborate set of definitions and re-definitions. Of course, power lies at the basis of everything, but culture determines how power is used, not the other way around.

  6. Hob says:

    I disagree Mr Modesitt– The style of the dish does not come before hunger. To disregard hunger and proceed on the basis that style of food is going to dictate the behavior of human/humans when the perception that food is running out is incorrect.

  7. Hob says:

    Culture comes after society, not before.

  8. I must totally disagree, particularly since you obviously don’t understand what I wrote. Power is at the basis of everything, but how that power is used is determined by the users. Once you get beyond isolated groups of hunter gatherers, the society/group decides. HOW they decide is determined by the culture of that society.

  9. Hob says:

    Mr Modesitt… the point I was making was that power-structures are based on relative value–people do not decide to have a culture, it is a reaction to the constraints placed upon them to maintain relative value. For example you are advocating that cultures are responsible for ills in society even as those cultures you deem unfit are produced and maintained by the cultures next to them.

    Why do those same unfit cultures, become relativley valuable to other cultures who they are not defined by?

  10. I’d submit that the problem isn’t that toxic cultures are maintained by other cultures [no outsiders profited from the Nazi culture; no outside cultures maintain or profit from the FLDS culture; while the entertainment/sports industry may profit from the inner city black culture, most of the rest of American society certainly doesn’t], but that maintaining position or power within such a toxic culture requires internal behaviors inconsistent with success outside the culture. If there is no external threat to such a culture, it will persist until it either changes or collapses.

  11. Hob says:

    The Nazi culture is directly created by Roman culture–hundreds of years of being called barbarians/uncivilized/pagans and having internalized that to an extent resulted in protestants and then, yes Nazis.

    Even the hatred of Jews is an internalized reaction against the people they blame, unconsciously, for having created Christianity, a religion which looks down on their ancestors/culture. After all Mr Modesitt, you don’t believe that the diverse cultures of Europe all just became Christians because they wished it? The Roman culture has defined and maintained the standard of ‘civilized’ by defining everyone else in Europe as not, could one not argue than that ‘White’ culture is merely an attempt to redefine a Roman/catholic/pope lead version with a more encompassing one including other European cultures?
    The ‘profit’ Mr Modesitt of having a strong negative black culture is that it allows various groups of Europeans to mix into a ‘white civilized American’ culture. Not seeing how this is maintained seems illogical to many outside America just as you would be able to see relative values of other cultures and wonder at their ‘values’.

    1. Mayhem says:

      Erm. What?

      Protestantism was originally a series of schisms in the Roman Catholic church, based primarily on what was seen as corruption in the hierarchy, and ombined elsewhere with political resentment of religious interference in secular affairs.

      The overall rapid spread of Christianity in the early days descended from the adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion by Constantine, who by the end of his reign was actively opposed to the pagan religions, many of which were in outlying parts of the empire. But he also wanted to stamp out any remaining challenges to his power from the older traditions, especially those in the army.

      I’m not sure how you link Roman religious tradition with the Nazis however – the Aryan traditions emerged out of the rise of the Northern countries in the 16th & 17th centuries, and how they worked aesthetic imagery from antiquity into new definitions of their cultural superiority. Look into Nordicism. The cultural traditions they developed were completely independant of their religious traditions, which varied from Protestant to Reform/Counter-Reform and Orthodox, depending on the country involved.

      As for the rest of your diatribe … it is quite frighteningly wrong.

      1. Hob says:

        I think you need to read into what caused protestantism to thrive in Germany and its effects outside of the ones merely started as a reform movement by German monks and why it lead to the invasion of the catholic church by German armies.

        Christianity was forced by the Roman state onto peoples they believed were inferior because they were pagans. Do you believe that those peoples forgot their histories because this happened? Law and origin of Law, validity of law comes from a origin force–in Europe today people are following documents written by napoleon explaining why the Roman Catholic church or for that matter any church is wrong in state governing, why? Is it because the origin force had changed from Roman to in his time a french one but not the law of origin? Why does the EU have a problem of leadership?

        The Naziz are an attempt at wresting physiological control of Christianity over Europe to a ‘Arya’ (all white European people are noble or sovereign, not just appointed/recognized people from Roman/catholic systems, understand? again does this sound familiar?)

        Yes, its quite, as you put it, frighteningly wrong that cultures/peoples view themselves as singular as they write why they are right and others are wrong.

  12. Joe says:

    Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. When simplistic ideas trump logic, and magical thinking becomes widespread, civilisations die. Civilisation is simply the system created by people running the same “software” (culture). When that software discourages adapting to new situations, the civilisation dies, in the same way as species which do not adapt go extinct.

    The ubiquity of magical thinking today is truly alarming. I wrote a whole tirade, but we all know the facts. Claiming “lack of evidence” to discount what is predictable using common sense, let alone scientific reasoning. Prosecuting the weak but “looking to the future” when dealing with the real criminals who destroyed millions of peoples’ lives. Claiming that we fight to preserve democracy, but building a surveillance apparatus orders of magnitude larger than the USSR’s. Treating money as freedom of speech. Socializing banking losses but not enforcing banking regulations. The list is endless.

    It’s pointless to struggle. Once the avalanche has started, it’s too late for the pebbles to vote. Much of Europe is also suffering the same malaise… I wonder whether any bastions of rational Western Scientific thought uncorrupted by greed survive, and if so where they are.

    1. Joe says:

      (You = LEM)

  13. Hob says:

    Sometimes I think one of the biggest faults with onlne communication is that one’s tone often does not carry across as intended.

    This, as one can imagine, causes its own misunderstandings. The internet should be a place of relaxation, or a comfortable place to exchange views, I do believe this.

    Looking over my posts, I think I have made the rookie mistake of disregarding perhaps the tone, as much as such a thing is possible, that Mr Modesitt and the regular posters have been going for on this blog.

    While I do believe my points need a great deal more explanation than perhaps I gave them–I do stand by them. At the same time I apologize for anybody who was offended, including Mr Modesitt of course.

    I will stop posting on this blog and I wish everyone well.

  14. Brian Kelman says:

    In the fourth century A.D. (ca. 325) Christianity was ‘chosen’ to be the State religion under Constantine I in order to provide a unifying principle to a geographically vast and varied empire. Not as a imposition to inferior people. The fact that the Christian Emperors threw more Pagans to the lions than the opposite might trick one into believing such. But it was to unify the empire in such a way that nothing else could.

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