NO COMPLAINT LEFT BEHIND: Friend, do you belong to a race?


"Quiet Trailblazer's" scare quotes: Friend, do you belong to a "race?" 

Yes, that's the actual question we're starting with today. Let's make sure you understand what we're actually asking. 

We aren't asking if you will be treated as if you belong to a "race." We aren't asking if other people will instantly see you as a member of a "race."

We're asking if you think you really do belong to a "race." Alao, if you think you do belong to a race, we're asking what you think that means.

Why are we asking those questions? In part, we're asking because of something the leading authority on this complex topic says:

Modern science regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning.

"Modern science regards race as a social construct...Race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning."

So says the leading authority. In fact, the leading authority makes those statements in the very first paragraph of its lengthy discussion of this complex topic.

According to the leading authority, our notions of "race" don't have any inherent biological meaning! But what exactly does that statement mean? And if "race" doesn't have any biological meaning, to what extent can it be said that anyone belongs to a "race?"

Long ago and far away, Mary Frances Early didn't seem to believe that she belonged to a "race." Rather, she seemed to believe that she belonged to the only actual race.

As we noted yesterday, Early wrote the prayer shown below back in 1953, when she'd just turned 17. She went on to become the first African-American to receive a degree from the University of Georgia—but this is what she wrote as she was starting her freshman year at the school which is known today as Clark Atlanta University:

EARLY (1953): Tonight, I pray a fervent prayer for the freshman class of Clark College, and the freshman classes all over the world—that they might dedicate themselves to the task of finishing this college course of four years, if possible, and then turn back to help their people who are not as fortunate as they—mold themselves into true citizens of the United States and of America so that someday the Negro race will not be called Negro and the Caucasian race called White, but all will be united together—in one race—the human race, having differences only in the pigment of their skin, texture of their hair, and having this in common—a citizen of the United States of America.

Early almost seemed to believe there was only one race—the human race. She seemed to believe that differences in pigment of skin and texture of hair were trivial pointless distractions.

Did Mary Frances Early, age 17, believe she belonged to a "race?" Did she believe there was "a Negro race" and "a Caucasian race?"  Did she perhaps regard that belief as an illusion?

Early went on to be one of the civil rights trailblazers who never became widely famous.  She helped integrate the University of Georgia, an improved institution whose education school now bears this honored name:

The Mary Frances Early School of Education

Today, the University of Georgia is a better place. As for Early, she recently published a memoir, The Quiet Trailblazer, from which we draw today's text.

Our question to you today will be this:

Does Early believe she belongs to a "race" even today? We ask that question because of the scare quotes which appear in a passage from her memoir.

In the passage to which we refer, Early is describing an important part of her elementary school education. Scare quotes appear at a crucial place.

Even today, at age 86, does Early believe she belongs to a "race?" We note the scare quotes here:

EARLY (2022): Miss Willis was my favorite teacher while I was in elementary school. She was from Canada and exhibited a more liberal approach to our studies; she was not afraid to enhance and embellish the prescribed curriculum. Perhaps that shaped her plans to marry at the end of the school year and move to another state.

She told us that her grandparents, during the slave-owning era in the United States, fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad. She had returned to get her education because she’d heard glowing reports about Spelman College in Atlanta. We were privileged to have a recent Spelman graduate with a major in English literature. She introduced us to the wonders of Black poetry as well as the conventional poetry of the time. As part of our instruction we had to memorize poems and recite them in class. I was assigned the poem “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth, as well as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. I loved to recite both and reveled in the joy of being inspired by Black poets in addition to those of the white race. Hearing the poets’ voices through their writing somehow made their humanity (rather than their “race”) all the more moving.

For the record, The Negro Speaks of Rivers is an unspeakably beautiful poem. We recall perusing it with our first class of Baltimore fifth-graders, all the way back in the spring of 1970.

You can read the poem here.

Langston Hughes had written an unspeakably beautiful poem. Even today, at age 86, Early says she got lucky when Miss Willis, late of Canada, exposed her to its beauty.

Early says she gained a great deal from being exposed "to the wonders of Black poetry as well as the conventional poetry of the time." She memorized both Wordsworth and Hughes—and she uses scare quotes as she describes what she gained from this exercise:

Hearing the poets’ voices through their writing somehow made their humanity (rather than their “race”) all the more moving.

Even today, does Early believe that she belongs to a "race?" Does she believe that Wordworth belonged to a race? Does she believe some such thing about Hughes?

Reading that passage in her book, it looks to us like Early is sticking to her conceptual guns. There is no race but the human race, she still seems to be saying.

The other "races" are so-called "races." So it seems she's still saying, almost sixty years after what she said in her prayer as an entering college freshman.

Friend, do you believe that you belong to a "race?" For ourselves, we prefer to put scare quotes around such fraught terms too, although the need to avoid distraction sometimes keeps us from doing so.

With that said, we state a view:

As Professors Gates and Curran have said, we do indeed "need a new language for talking about race." And it seems to us that a new, more instructive language would involve a reversion to that older idea.

That older idea goes like this:

We have only one actual "race," and that's the human race. The belief that those other "races" exist has no scientific validity—descends to us, live and direct, from "the world the slaveholders made."

Today, our flailing liberal / progressive tribe seems to cling to the idea that we do belong to those other "races." We cling to the conceptual framework invented for us by that brutal, benighted "slave-holding" class. That conceptual framework seems to lie at the heart of most of the things we say and do.

It seems to us that we've lost the idea that "it's all just human DNA." We assume that's what the professors were driving at in their recent guest essay in the New York Times—and we think that a successful "new language" might revert to that earlier idea.

Our tribe no longer seems to have a strong connection to that idea. This is nowhere more clear than in the current, perhaps unhelpful practice—a perhaps unhelpful journalistic practice—in which absolutely no complaint, however slender or poorly expressed, is ever left behind.

Tomorrow: Was Hill's complaint well expressed?


  1. Hey, phony media critic, and nonsense Right-wing meme repeater, do you have anything to say about Bill Barr being invited by the press to whitewash his support of fascism?
    Or are you too busy taking orders from Christopher Fucking Rufo to help cancel culture CRT?

  2. Yesterday Rationalist said that "Quiet and meek are your words", referring to me. But the title of Early's book is "The Quiet Trailblazer". Quiet was her own word for herself, which Somerby repeated. I didn't make up that quality about her.

    But here is part of the problem. Early wrote a prayer which Somerby quotes, about freshmen all over the country succeeding at college. But she wrote that while attending a black university, barred from the schools attended by white students. And she never mentions that restriction. Her meekness is reflected by the fact that she apparently didn't imagine herself at another school, was accepting of the school that accepted her. That is meekness, even if Somerby and Early do not use that word. And it is too bad when students who are black do not see themselves attending top schools along with their white classmates.

    1. Upon further research I admit I was overstepped with my comments.

      I still think she was intrepid to be the first African-American to receive a degree from the University of Georgia, which you seem to overlook in your haste to point out she was at a smaller, black university earlier.

    2. Somerby pretends to not understand why races exist, he is a lost soul.

      Race exists because racism exists. Without racial oppression, there would be no separate races. When a black person has a dollar for every white person's dollar, then we can talk about how there is only the human race, but for now, a black person has only 15 cents, so we have a ways to go.

      This is bone simple stuff Somerby is well aware of, but prefers to deny.

  3. And here is Somerby doing some race-related virtue signaling:

    "We recall perusing it with our first class of Baltimore fifth-graders, all the way back in the spring of 1970."

  4. Somerby seems to have lost the idea that when other people see you as a member of a distinct race, black or white, that creates a problem for our society, which must be addressed actively because it limits and obstructs people in their efforts to live their lives.

    It does not matter if we see ourselves as members of the human race, if other who control access do not see us the same way.

    Bloviating in a feel-good manner about humans being all one race does nothing to help this situation. The reality is that unequal treatment creates a separation that is as real as if there were distinct races. Activism needs to address this problem and even Early saw that later in her life, when she was no longer 17 years old. Somerby is much older than that -- what is his excuse for blowing past this reality of all of our lives?

    When an adult man should know better, but does not, that suggests a motivated blindness to the reality of black lives in our society. We call that motivation bigotry and do not excuse it as misguided idealism, as Somerby seems to do. It is ugly to ignore the aspirations of those around us who are receiving unequal treatment in today's society, while posing as some sort of do-gooding optimist who cannot see race, and behaving like a huge asshole.


  5. By the way, dear Bob, when one of your liberal tribe's top chiefs (or shamans?) says "The government spending is doing the exact reverse, reducing the national debt." -- what thoughts come into your liberal head? Do words "disordered" and "some sort of insane" appear in those thoughts? Why is it that you never share these thoughts here with us, dear Bob?

    1. Do you support Ukraine against Russia? The ban on Russian oil? Like the vast majority of the "ordinary working people" you claim to support?

      Why is it that you never share these thoughts here with us, dear Mao? Would it expose your so-called support of the average person as a complete sham and that you are posting on behest of the power elite? Who you claim to despise?

    2. Oh, do we now import oil, under this liberal regime? It figures.

      Incidentally, dear dembot, oil is a global commodity. But of course there's nothing sweeter for your liberal tribe's chiefs than kissing bin Salman's ass. Naturally.

    3. Oh look what a surprise, you completely dodged the questions.

      You can't point blank state that you are against the invasion of Ukraine can you?

      Your masters won't allow it?

      But you're the voice of the common man?

      What a joke.

    4. You guessed it, dear dembot: we are afraid of your masters.

  6. Mao must be independently wealthy to stay at his computer because he NEEDS to comment first as if he ever says anything intelligent.

  7. I like the framing of today's post as a personal decision: do I count myself a member of a race?

    No. Doubtless, I have that luxury, being light of skin. But I don't consider myself a member of a white race, either biologically or culturally. I count as "white" to others, both for certain reasons that I can respect, and also for certain other reasons that I cannot.

    Ms. Early does not have my luxury, and decides "no," as well, and I respect that. Others with black skin decide "yes" and I can certainly respect that, too.

    The way into this mess was through the imposition of race as a tool to subjugate, oppress, and often destroy, people with black and brown skin. We are still in that mess, and the question is: what is the way out?

    For those living with the legacy of oppression for the color of their skin, affirming their racial identity is a basic way of saying: "I am human, equal, and good." That must be respected.

    As we saw with a simple phrase like "black lives matter," white rage as blowback to basic black self-affirmation is inevitable. But I cannot agree that the way out of the mess is the equivalent of saying "no, all lives matter." More like: "yes, as much as all lives matter." (I am not accusing Somerby of that, far from it. I am simply saying that the way out of the mess is back through "race:" on the way, though, to the promised land of one human race.)

    1. "Others with black skin decide "yes" and I can certainly respect that, too."

      There's nothing to respect here, dear David. Others may have whatever fantasies they like; it's their personal, private business.

      You can refuse to perceive people as belonging to "races", to think of them as individuals, regardless of fantasies some of them may have.

    2. Strangely, I agree; less strangely, I disagree. My (private) perception has nothing to do with my (public) respect. How might I "think of them as individuals" without according them the same right to private perception that I recognize in myself?

    3. Just see them as individuals.

      What does it have to do with respect? You respect people for something that deserves respect, their achievements or something.

      That some people have fantasies that they and others belong to "races" is not something that deserves respect. It's just their ... what's the word? ... peculiarity? a quirk, kink?

    4. Respect definition: (1) "a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements", (2) "due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others."

      David may be using meaning 2 while Mao is using meaning 1.

      Having respect in the sense of meaning 2 is part of being a civil person. If your parents didn't teach you to do this, your education was lacking and you need remedial training in how to play well with others.

    5. Thanks, that's right: simple human decency, not too much to ask. Besides, while the lack of a biological basis for race rules out ascribing it to others, the social invention of race makes it fair game (like any other group identification) for voluntary association.

    6. Whatever. If you must "show respect", do it, who cares. It's not relevant here.

    7. Mao, to your previous comment: I do see them as individuals, that's how I see them. My respect is for how they see themselves. Sorry for not making that clear.

    8. Respect if you must, but, if we may suggest, restrain yourself from giving them any money.

    9. Thank you for the cautionary note.

  8. A related question is whether a person can represent a race. If not, then there's no meaning to the term "under-represented".

    In my own field, does a black actuary represent the black race (or "race")? I say no. This individual passed the exams, thus qualifying for membership in the actuarial society. Passing the exams was her/his sole achievement, not the black race's achievement.

    If you agree, then it follows that it makes no sense to say, e.g., that blacks are under-represented in the actuarial society. Since actuaries don't represent races, there's no meaning to the term "under-represented."

    1. That's not a particularly interesting question. A more relevant question is whether a person who is deemed to belong to a particular race brings something new to that table; something that a person who is not deemed to be a member of that race would not.

  9. "Even today, does Early believe that she belongs to a "race?" Does she believe that Wordworth belonged to a race? Does she believe some such thing about Hughes?"

    Somerby asks these questions, despite the FACT that Wordsworth was part of the curriculum whereas Hughes was a deviation from it, perhaps related to the FACT that her teaching left the school at the end of the term. That suggestion itself implies that she might be punished for teaching such black poets as a supplement to the white poets on the syllabus.

    How can Somerby argue in one breath that there is no real difference between these poets of "unspeakable" beauty while one is permitted to students by the curriculum and the other is not? That glaring difference should have leapt out at him, given his own work as a teacher.

    And what kind of word is "unspeakable" when used to describe great beauty? Early doesn't use it -- Somerby does. It is more natural for someone to talk about indescribable beauty and reserve the word unspeakable for heinous crimes, bad things such as unspeakable poverty. While technically it means the same thing as indescribable, its second meaning is "too bad or horrific to express in words". Why on earth would Somerby apply that term to a poet such as Langston Hughes?

    Or perhaps he does mean it literally, since black teachers were presumably not permitted to speak about black poets to their black students, in those days? But how can Somerby not notice such a condition and instead emphasize only the shared humanity of everyone involved (Hughes, Wordsworth, Early and her teacher)? Shared humanity demands equal treatment that obviously did not exist in this situation, as it does not in many others.

  10. The Establishment has deep pockets.