Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) wrote a doctoral dissertation on class and race in pre-revolutionary France. Race, A Study in Modern Superstition (1937) charted the protracted dispute in France over the “race” of the nobility versus the bourgeoisie that was one of the divisive factors that contributed to the French Revolution.
He suggested that “race-thinking” persisted after the Revolution in the struggles between nations, political parties, religious faiths and social groups. For Barzun “race-thinking” is one of the ways to justify collective hostility and it is most dangerous and powerful when it operates in partnership with other motives such as the nationalism of the Nazis, the socialism of the communists and nowadays the radicalism of Black Lives Matter. “Marxist doctrine at its purest is in form and effect racist thought. Indeed the class struggle is but the old race antagonism of French nobles and commoners write large and made ruthless. Marx’s bourgeois is not a human being with individual traits but a social abstraction, a creature devoid of virtue or free will and without the right to live.”
The book was reprinted in 1965 and the Preface “Racism Today” makes interesting reading half a century later. He wrote “As long as people permit themselves to think of human groups without the vivid sense that groups consist of individuals and that individuals display the full range of human differences, the tendency which twenty-eight years ago I named ‘race-thinking’ will persist.” Individuals should be treated according to their personal characteristics such as their fitness and qualifications for particular tasks but as long as the qualities required for the tasks are not race-related there is no need to make race an issue. If it is made an issue then “race-thinking” will continue to generate muddled thinking and inappropriate actions with potentially dangerous unintended consequences.
He urged that giving up race-thinking means equal opportunity but not affirmative action. Because there are no positive or negative traits that are race-related it follows that “sentimental or indignant reversals of the racist proposition are false and dangerous. The victims of oppression do not turn into angels by being emancipated… Race-thinking is bad thinking and that is all.”
On the topic of affirmative action he wrote “When injustice is redressed, the hitherto outcast and maligned group must not benefit in reverse from the racism they justly complained of. They do not suddenly possess, as a group, the virtues they were previously denied, and it is no sign of wisdom in the former oppressors to affect a contrite preference for those they once abused.”
He recalled a report from a Fulbright scholar in Paris who witnessed a memorable celebration in the Latin Quarter. A contingent of white writers and artists led by Negro writers and accompanied by French and American students had ceremonially burned the white race in effigy! He regarded that as an emblem of suicide by both parties because inverting the racial hierarchy leaves race-thinking intact and probably even stronger than before because it is sanctified by the self-righteous sense of correcting a great injustice.
Barzun went on to address the situation when a representative of a group is depicted in a work of art or literature in a way that some people find offensive. He instanced the repeated attempts to have The Merchant of Venice banned and Huckleberry Finn removed from library shelves. Nowadays he would be referring to the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians. “This anxious wrangling which goes on about books and plays seems at times trivial but it is in fact fundamental. If democratic culture yields on this point no prospect lies ahead but that of increased animosity among pressure groups…In social and cultural relations the law rarely intervenes effectively; the protection of rights and feelings only comes from decency and self-restraint.”
Windwatch. At 7pm Wind & Other were contributing almost 4% of demand.