Reimagining Race Relations

What if the Sahara Desert didn’t exist?

Years ago, I happened to be eating lunch with a privileged white man I didn’t know well. He was a friend of a friend. This man is very wealthy and has led, by all accounts, a comfortable life. There were six or seven of us seated around a table at a restaurant and our waiter was black. And at one point in the conversation, I heard this wealthy white man saying to the fellow next to him how he suspected that there must be something genetically different about African Americans to explain their propensity toward crime, poverty and ignorance. I forget exactly how he expressed this but that was the idea: black people are genetically inferior to white people. I was shocked. That was the most blatantly-expressed racism I have ever encountered. I still get mad thinking about it.

Like most Americans, I have given a lot of thought to race relations lately. Last year seemed to be an enormous step backward in terms of national unity regarding race. There are many sides of this issue and many worthy points to make, but the one I like best, the one I want to make here, is one that requires some imagination. And it begins at a place that might surprise you…

What if there were no Sahara Desert?

Before we get going with this imaginary history, I’ll admit that I’m no historian. My allegory here probably oversimplifies or misunderstands much nuance in ancient history. But hopefully, you can still find the kernel of truth in it.

Imagine this: what if all of Africa were as verdant as its southern parts? What if the Saraha Desert — 3.6 million square miles of untraceable, uninhabitable wasteland — simply didn’t exist. So imagine that as the Roman Empire expanded from the Mediterranean, it hadn’t halted at the northern edge of Africa, but had pushed farther South than North, into modern-day Nigeria and Cameroon. Imagine that the principles of democracy and rule of law took hold in Central Africa in the middle ages rather than in Europe. Imagine that it was the tribal savages of Africa who benefitted from Greek and Roman philosophy more than the tribal savages of Western Europe. Imagine that the Magna Carta was signed in Lagos, not in London.

Imagine that the Celts and Gauls persisted in agrarian, warlike societies while peace, democracy, prosperity and infrastructure flourished in Africa. Imagine central and western Africa dotted with cathedrals, palaces and parliaments. Then imagine that it was Africans, set free from the daily scrum of eking out an ancient living, who started to explore distant lands. Imagine there were Nigerian conquistadors, rather than Spanish. Imagine African kings commissioning explorations to East India and the New World.

Now imagine that those expeditions needed cheap labor to power them, and that Africans found a source of that labor in the uneducated poor white people of Western Europe. A century later, imagine slave ships full of white men crossing the Atlantic to do the back-breaking work of forging a new society. Imagine unchecked racism as black men ridiculed whites for their dainty features and tribal superstitions. Imagine a United States founded of the black people, by the black people, and for the black people where white people counted as three-fifths people.

Let’s stop there; you can extended the parallels farther on your own, or create your own scenarios if you like. The point is this: people are just people. Our histories, cultures and beliefs are often as much a product of geography as genetics, more accidental than important. In the millennias-old story of the human race, our upbringing has been influenced more by our nurture than our nature. We are born in different places but we are not born different. We belong to different tribes but they do not limit our personhood. People are just people. We are all the same.

At my lunch with a racist, I didn’t have the time or social capital to encourage such imagination from my friend’s friend. I’m not sure I could have succeeded if I had tried. But as pitiable and infuriating as his opinions were, my own imagination tells me that he, too, is just like me. He wasn’t born more bigoted or blinkered than people from other tribes. He is the product of a subculture affected by years of history and personalities. He’s a person. And people are just people. From the Sahara Desert to Ferguson, Missouri, I think we would do well to remember that.

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