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Lions Roar : November 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2008 19 THERE ARE MANY THINGS we can say about the historically unprecedented campaign of Senator Barack Obama to become America’s first non-white president, but one thing we can certainly expect the general election in November to do is take the tempera- ture of racial attitudes in America at the dawn of a new century. For Buddhists, awakening is the goal of our practice. After decades of meditation, daily spiritual practice, and study of the dharma, we find ourselves acutely aware of how intellectual con- structs can create illusion or ignorance (avidya), and fuel divi- siveness and dualism in our lives. Clearly, one of the most toxic of these illusions is the notion of “race.” To be sure, it is a political issue. But more importantly, it is an enlightenment issue as well. By now we know—or should know—that race is our grandest lived delusion and grief-causing fiction, “a social construction,” says Stanford University historian Richard White, who reminds us that at one time the Irish, Jews, Poles, and southern Europeans were ex- cluded from the exclusive social club of “whiteness.” As scientists continue sequencing the genome, they find no biological basis for race. Sharon Begley’s 2003 “Science Journal” column in The Wall Street Journal reported that, “Geneticists find that when they add up the tiny genetic variations that make one person different from the next, there are more differences within races than between races.” “Race has no basic biological reality,” Jonathan Marks, a Yale University biologist, reported in a Knight-Ridder newspaper article. “The human species simply doesn’t come packaged that way.” Stanford geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza added, “The char- acteristics that we see with the naked eye that help us distinguish individuals from different continents are, in reality, skin-deep. Whenever we look under the veneer we find that the differences that seem so conspicuous to us are really trivial.” Yet, for all that, we continue to live the lie of race, which accord- ing to an article in a 2003 issue of Science News literally makes us stupider. “White people who hold biased feelings toward blacks have to work to control their thoughts and behaviors during inter- racial encounters,” said Dartmouth psychologist Jennifer Richeson. “This social strategy depletes the limited pool of mental resources available for monitoring and using various types of information.” Even before the current popular interest in DNA research, Guy Murchie wrote in The Seven Mysteries of Life that if we trace our ancestry back fifty generations to CE 700, we find we all share a CHARLES R. JOHNSON is a novelist, scholar, and essayist who holds the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His novels include Dreamer, based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Middle Passage, for which he won a National Book Award. The Meaning of Barack Obama Win or lose, Barack Obama’s candidacy represents an historic shift in how Americans view themselves and their place in the world, says CHARLES R. JOHNSON. As a twenty-first-century global citizen, Obama helps us to transcend parochialism, tribalism, and that most pernicious of fictions—race. ILLUSTRATIONBYALANGORDON NOV 18-39.indd 19 NOV 18-39.indd 19 9/1/08 12:18:07 PM 9/1/08 12:18:07 PM