Enlightenment Values Aren’t Just the Solution to Racism, They’re Also the Problem

The slaughter of nine worshippers in a Charleston church once more forces us to have conversations we would rather not have. This was clearly an act of terrorism, as defined by the FBI, but we will not call it that because the perpetrator is not a racial or religious minority. He wanted to intimidate a group of people. In his own words, he killed people praying because they were black, but we will shy away from the conversation on race because we say we do not know enough.

The hard conversations are not just about who gets to be called a “terrorist,” or about racism in America. It’s also about the way in which accept and institutionalize violence as part of an Enlightenment story that both liberals and conservatives look to in defining their vision of the nation.

At times like these, American politicians and pundits turn to Enlightenment values like guarantees of freedom of religion and speech and the promise that all people will be treated as equals. These may be the ideals of the Enlightenment, but that certainly hasn’t been its only legacy.

What we call the Enlightenment is actually a collection of philosophical movements throughout Europe, spanning nearly a hundred years. While lauded for focusing on individual liberties, it was conditioned by the historical realities of the time; these liberties were not intended to be truly universal. The Declaration of Independence famously declares that “all men are created equal,” excluding women, while the US Constitution considers black people only 3/5th human.

Just as important, the Enlightenment and Reformation were about moving authority away from the Church to the nation-state. One of the defining aspects of a nation is determining who belongs to it. Anti-Semitism, for example, which has continued to exist since the Enlightenment, is no longer based on theology, but on the notion of the foreign invader threatening the nation. Some aspects of the Enlightenment, in other words, certainly didn’t stand in the way of the Holocaust.

Ultimately, it’s about who gets to commit violence in a permissible way, and it’s always the nation. That violence can be directed at other nations, or to internal populations. One simply has to look at a film like Birth of a Nation to see how this works.

The way in which police tactics are used against black bodies in America is enabled by Enlightenment thinking in the sense that it’s a reflection of the different ideas of who is truly a citizen, and therefore who’s allowed the rights of protection of the state.

It’s not just law enforcement, but the entire penal system, from arrest to sentencing, which treats any minority as having fewer rights than the majority, a direct legacy of the slave period. It’s no coincidence that when the Trayvon Martin murder happened, and we saw a demand to recognize that black lives matter, that Dylann Roof became radicalized. His worldview, his place of privilege, was so shaken that well after Martin’s murder went unpunished, he was able to go into a church, pray with people, and then kill them.

That we do not officially call him a terrorist, or people like Joseph Stack a terrorist, is an implicit acknowledgement that we treat their violence as closer to accepted forms of violence than we would care to admit. What we call terrorism is actually a threat to the monopoly on violence that the nation exercises. After the first Gulf War, we did not encourage Enlightenment ideals in Iraq, we imposed sanctions and violence, directly and indirectly. That is the lesson that Iraqis learned from us; the Enlightenment realities of control and enforcement. It’s no wonder that we were not met with roses after the second Gulf War.

The difficult conversation we need to be having concerns our true ideals. We can keep declaring that it’s about the Enlightenment, but what part of that do we actually manifest? Our domestic and foreign policy have always been aligned around the issue of conformity and maintaining privilege. We cannot see the two as separate. As long as we have official policies that see parts of our population as less than civilized, thus less than citizens, and thus less than human, we will always see the world outside our borders in the same way.

If we believe that there are Enlightenment values that have meaning, we need to live up to those in practice, stop being shocked at everyday violence inside our borders, and do something that puts an end to it. Our number one export has to stop being weapons, because that too demonstrates where our values lie.

It’s time to start having these difficult conversations, and saying and living our ideals in a way that matters.

  • Whiskyjack

    I find the title very misleading. Enlightenment values aren’t the problem: it is the lack of adherence to them that is problematic. I see nothing in the article that supports the contention in the title.

  • DKeane123

    This article is off. So we did a poor job of implementing these principles and therefore, what? We are human and still prone to prejudices and an evolutionary distrust of the other?

    I would like to see a quote or two that illustrates that this school of thought sanctioned minorities being treated as “less than” by the governments. The most this article illustrates is that if these principles ONLY transfer power from the church to the state, then they are incomplete. But from what I’ve read, that seems like a huge simplification. There is nothing inherent in government that says racism must exist, but I can certainly cite passages from the Bible that say on the authority of God, slavery is allowable.

    Also, the statement that because of enlightened principles, events like the Holocaust shouldn’t happen is odd. Has anyone claimed that because we had the Enlightenment people would automatically treat each other nicely and that nations would treat minorities in their borders with the utmost respect? In this particular instance we are up against centuries of a Christian reinforced antisemitism that was so prevelant that the Protestant Reformation was started by a person that penned the pamphlet “On The Jews and Their Lies”

  • NancyP

    Neither enlightenment values nor religious values favoring equality are the problem here – failure to live by those values is the problem.

  • cranefly

    Cue a bunch of people saying No True Enlightenment is racist or misogynist.

  • Dennis Kelley

    I think the role that Enlightenment values and modernity played in the Holocaust can even be stated more strongly: that these ideas inspired and facilitated it. The genocidal approach to American Indians as well. Critical Race Theory holds that racism is endemic to the Enlightenment, it isn’t just that “we did a poor job implementing these principles” as DKeane states, the point of the article is that racism is a product of the Enlightenment.

  • Paul

    I dont really agree with the characterization of almost all the things mentioned as being primarily the result of enlightenment thinking…

    I think what is proven here is that many bad things have happened concurrently to the 200+ year span in which Enlightenment values have been influencing western societies. But this guilty-by-temporal-association argument however could be applied in the same way to any number of things.

    Think about the current millennial mindset of the youth of today, concerned by superficial qualities about themselves. You can see this mindset and philosophy in the tragic terrorist Attack on the recent Charleston Church massacre–the perpetrators unconcerned with the loss of life in their desire to further the cause of the personal agenda they espoused.

    … Just to be clear, that was me trying to show a reductio ad absurdium (sp?) — I don’t really believe that the self centered attitudes of the millennial generation is to blame here. I just wanted to point out that just as coherent an argument can be made tying it to recent tragedies as can be made for enlightenment philosophy and values.

  • Paul

    You are right that the point of this article is to suggest that racism is a product of enlightenment–it’s just that it doesn’t make a very convincing argument.

    If racism were indeed a product of Enlightenment, then would it be fair to assume that prior to the Enlightenment, there was no racism? Even if this guilty-by-temporal-association argument was compelling, is there really temporal association here?

    I guess the question would be, did racism exist prior to the Enlightenment? Were tragedies involving one ethnic group harming another ethnic group or subjugating them not observed prior to the arrival of Enlightenment philosophy?

    I’m just not convinced. I think one could make just as compelling argument blaming communism or liberalism or dandyism or Pokemon as being what racism is the direct product of–rather unconvincing.

  • Dennis Kelley

    i think there is a distinct difference between discrimination and racism. the Enlightenment gave us the tools to create taxonomies that we believe are based on qualities inherent to the things being categorized, so “race” itself is really a product of Enlightenment thinking.

  • Paul

    Gotcha. So pre-enlightenment there was only discrimination, but not racism?

    Well, I can’t say I agree with you. I think the amalekites might beg to differ (or rather, the writers who felt a narrative about righteous tribal extermination was fit to be included in their holy book, would beg to differ).

    But everyone’s entitled to their own view on things.

  • cmbennett01

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this coming from Fox News, but I have to admit I’m a little surprised to see it here. It’s Enlightenment Values that are at fault for violence and racism? Seriously?

  • cmbennett01

    This illustrates exactly what is wrong with Critical Race Theory, or Critical anything Theory for that matter.

  • cmbennett01

    You may be right that everyone is entitled to their own view on things, but some opinions are actually better than others. The PoMo hostility toward all things enlightenment stems primarily from their opposition to that idea.

  • cmbennett01

    Racism is not a “taxonomy”. It is a belief held in the minds of men that has been around as long as humans have walked the earth. You will find it in the works of literature, ancient and modern. By the way care to elaborate on these tools the enlightenment gave us to create taxonomies. I think humans have actually been putting things in categories for quite some time. In fact, I’m not sure we as a species would have made it to the enlightenment if they weren’t.

  • Dennis Kelley

    unfortunately there isn’t time or space to address the underlying issues with your statement about “PoMo.” re-read (if indeed you read it in the first place) the paragraph beginning “What we call the Enlightenment…” unless you have read Locke, Hume, Kant, and know anything about Linnaeus, Saartjie Baartman’s dissection, or the influence of the scientific classification of humans on slavery, genocidal programs against native peoples and antisemitism in Germany, you are not understanding the basic idea: it isn’t about the Enlightenment being “good” or “bad,” but that science, law, and politics have been built, in part, to shore up the view that people with white European ancestry are inherently superior. look at a book called The Myth of Race by Robert Sussman, or Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts.

  • cmbennett01

    I actually have quite a library here in my home. It includes Locke, Hume, and Kant along with quite a few post-modernist which as a young man I expended considerable amount of time and effort. I eventually came to the conclusion that it was meaningless drivel. So I’m not really interested in your display of pseudo intellectual drivel or your claim that racism is an invention of the enlightenment; an idea so patently ridiculous that I’m surprised even a post-modernist would espouse it.
    The fact is, racism is a product of fear and ignorance, There are ideas that are good and there are ideas that are bad. There are ideas that advance justice and peace and there are ideas that perpetuate violence. The world is not a word game or a social construct.

  • Dennis Kelley

    again, i use these terms as critical tools, so while humans of course have placed things in categories for most of our evolutionary history, a taxonomy is a certain kind of category, and alludes to Linnaeus, who saw himself as placing all of God’s creation into a hierarchical system, and people came to be classified as those who have the capacity to understand complex ideas such as freedom at one end, and those who don’t at the other. of course, White Europeans were at the superior end, dark-skinned people at the other. Polygenesis, phrenology, Linnaean taxonomic systems, etc. along with the philosophies of Rousseau, Locke, Kant, Descartes, among others all provided the tools to cement the characteristics of humans based on biology, geography, and language. race as a concept isn’t the same as what the Greeks called *ethnos*, race as applied to humans was, and still is in many ways, seen as a correlate to species. and, as the article points out, until we understand that our system is built on the basic idea that those who have European ancestry are INHERENTLY better-suited to handle the complexities of modern society, we will continue to perpetuate the very causes of the kind of hatred that drove Roof into that church in South Carolina.

  • Dennis Kelley

    are you referring to the Amalekites in the Book of Mormon? my friend, Mormonism could possibly be, along with Scientology, the 2 most Enlightenment and Modernity-dependent religions in the world.

  • Dennis Kelley

    ACTING on the inherent racism of the American project is the result of ignorance. as is dismissing intellectual interchange in an open forum by name-calling. i am merely trying to draw attention back to the, in my opinion, very good point made in this article: that the very possibility for Dylan Roof to make the assessments he made about an entire community based on the color of their skin has a history, and that history needs to be understood and addressed, or more Dylan Roofs will keep coming along. i really do recommend Robert Sussman’s book.
    BTW: post-modernism and post-structuralism are merely attempts to bring what were thought to be broad theories that ignored particular social and historical circumstances into an analysis that challenged the biases held by the purveyors of those theories (Saussure, Freud, Locke, Durkheim, etc.). passing it all off as “meaningless drivel” discounts the presence of an entire generation and growing of thinkers. surely you can’t be saying you’re smarter than ALL of them?

  • cmbennett01

    If you’d like to take the moral high ground you should probably not start off with accusations.

  • Dennis Kelley

    …just taking issue with being called a “pseudo intellectual.” i happen to be a professional 🙂

  • andrew123456789

    It would be helpful if some specific examples of Enlightenment thought as expressed by Enlightenment thinkers were presented here. By that, I mean the aspects which are part of the problem.

  • andrew123456789

    Locke, Hume, and Kant are meaningless drivel and yet you continue having this conversation. I don’t know that I agree with either of you without expending some more thought myself, but I found that offhand comment, well, shocking.

  • andrew123456789

    Didn’t happen.

  • cmbennett01

    Who asked you?

  • Sorry, these critical theory/pomo attacks on the Enlightenment are pure sophistry based on a simplistic “genealogical” method of historical analysis that may play well in pseudo-academic disciplines like religious studies but no serious philosopher, historian or social scientist would make such a facile argument. I suspect this hostility towards the Enlightenment is more a function of the nostalgia certain religions still hold for a past where they still exercised hegemony over the masses, which they would like to recapture by constantly attacking modern secularism. However, I would expect such duplicity in trying to pin recent racial tensions on the Enlightenment from the right wing reactionaries on Fox news rather from so-called progressives – just further proof that certain strains of the academic left are not much different than the reactionary right when it comes to their common enemy – those same Enlightenment values that this blog post pillories.

  • andrew123456789

    Don’t like comment on your public declarations, take it to a private place. Especially if you’re going to dismiss out-of-hand giants of Western philosophy.

  • Whiskyjack

    Nicely said.

  • cmbennett01

    Statement like “the inherent racism of the American project ” are what I call meaningless. The concept of race is meaningless in that it has no foundation in empirical fact. Racism is real, it has demonstrable effects and I agree has a long history. It’s history did not start withe the American project, and it did not start with European hegemony, and in fact is not confined to minds of white men. It is not inherent in any society, it is the product of ignorance driven by fear of outsiders; fear that may have been justified at one time.
    Post-modernism is bankrupt because it is mostly philosophical platitudes and truisms wrapped in opaque, obscurantist language. People in positions of power abuse that power. Really, who would have guessed? They create “narratives” to justify their actions. These narratives are not actually based on reality. What an utterly profound insight. Language and culture affect peoples perceptions of their world; we are in agreement.
    The problem is they don’t stop there; they have decided that all reality is just a social construct, so the solution is to create a new narrative that they like better and since it’s all just a social construction, the new theory is not bound by any concept of reality either. So now everyone has there own narrative. Who’s going to win the prize for the best narrative? I give you three guesses.
    Racism, violence and injustice are facts. They have been with us for a very long time. Human society, including western society, has made progress in overcoming them. To deny that is to deny the facts of history; not the narrative of history, the facts. History has also shown our failings. Those failing are concrete and identifiable. Post-modernism offers no solutions to those problems because it rejects the idea that there is an objective idea of good, and so I reject post-modernism.

  • cmbennett01

    You are apparently illiterate and ignorant. There was no such dismissal of giants of western philosophy. OK.. go away now.

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Agreed — we need to be doubling down on the true values of the Enlightenment, not hawking specious claims about their perversion by the State …

  • Kent Truesdale

    WTF??

  • westernwynde

    Some of this discussion could have been, well, enlightening, but I had to stop reading it because of the snark and name-calling. Come on, people.

  • Serai 1

    Then the whole thing went right over your head. Try reading a history book – those Enlightenment values weren’t anywhere near as benevolent as you think they were.

  • Serai 1

    So write your own article, then.

  • Serai 1

    Ah, so if it doesn’t prop up your already entrenched beliefs, it’s “wrong”, eh? Great example of confirmation bias there, Sparky.

  • Whiskyjack

    Actually, I have read a number of books on the Enlightenment. I believe that we have made significant progress in ethics and morals since that time, but nonetheless feel that most Enlightenment values constituted a significant improvement over the Church-controlled morality of the time.
    The Enlightenment values certainly did not extend to women or other races, and they can be justifiably criticized for that. My comment was directed at the author of the article, who failed to identify how Enlightenment values caused the problem of racism. That issue long predated the Enlightenment.

  • DKeane123

    No thanks, I am happy commenting here.

  • Serai 1

    Of course you are. It’s so much easier to bitch about what other people do than to actually do anything yourself.

  • DKeane123

    Wow, didn’t realize critical commentary set you off so much. Seems like you shouldn’t be reading the “Disqus” section of blog posts then.