by David Livingstone Smith
Twenty-five years ago, this month, the worst atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust took place in the small mountain town of Srebrenica, in Bosnia. More than 8000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, were slaughtered by Serbian troops. The details are horrific, and they haunt the memories of the survivors: the boys who somehow managed to escape, the men and women who as children looked on as their mothers were viciously raped, the women who witnessed genocidaires slitting their infants’ throats.
This anniversary is unlikely to get much traction in the American news cycle. We are too occupied with our own concerns, such as the deadly juggernaut of COVID19 and the ongoing protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder. But there’s also a deeper reason for our obliviousness—one that connects the barely imaginable horrors of Srebrenica with the Black Lives Matter movement on our own soil. It’s the ongoing nightmare of race.
We Americans have a hard time making sense of the idea of an indigenous European Muslim community. According to the stereotype, real Muslims are brown people, not white ones, and that the Bosnian genocide was rooted in religious differences rather than racial ones. But Bosniaks and Serbs know better. They know that the distinction between Muslim Bosniak and Christian Serb, although ostensibly religious, is built on a racial foundation. And they also know that complexion was irrelevant to the racial divisions that fueled the genocide, just as the complexion of European Jews was irrelevant to the Germans who fed their bodies to the ovens of Treblinka, and the complexion of Rwandan Tutsis was irrelevant to the Hutus who hacked them to death in the genocide of 1994.
Our knee-jerk equating of race with skin color comes from our nation’s particular history of enslaving the dark-skinned peoples of West Africa and oppressing their descendants. The assumption is pervasive, and shared both by those who call themselves White and those who call themselves Black. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. contrasted the color of a person’s skin with the content of their character.
But King was wrong, as are all of those who think of race as color. The American way of racing is just a local variant of something that is very much larger, and to properly address and do away with racial injustice, it’s crucial to understand how the concept of race really works. I set this out in detail in my recent book On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It. It’s a long story, but here’s the gist of it.
The idea of race is the idea that there are a small number of fundamentally different kinds of people. These kinds of people are arranged on a hierarchy. We (whomever “we” are) are the highest form of human life. “They”—the racialized others—are inferior, or even subhuman. Their lives don’t matter, or don’t matter much. And race is a life sentence. You are born into the prison of race, and there’s no way out.
The claim that there are human races is scientifically baseless. We’ve known for a long time that patterns of human variation do not map onto racial taxonomies. But it is not merely scientifically baseless, it is inherently poisonous. Many people believe that we can buy into the idea of race without defaulting to racism. However, the notion that their higher and lower kinds of human beings—that some lives matter and some lives don’t—is built in to the concept of race. Race is rotten to its core. It can’t be reformed, detoxified, or otherwise cleaned up. Platitudes about the importance of diversity or pious pronouncements that black lives matter can’t wash away its stench.
To achieve racial justice, in this country and abroad, we must broaden our perspective to recognize how irredeemably destructive the very idea of race really is. In doing that, we must drive a stake through its heart, attend to those many living people whose souls it has mutilated, and pay homage to those whose lives it has destroyed.