In 1927 Sigmund Freud published a short book entitled The Future of an Illusion. The specific illusion he had in mind was the combined illusion not only of the existence of God but also the impact of God’s activity on human life and particularly on what Freud liked to call “civilization.” For Freud, and illusion was a belief originating not in empirical evidence but in wish fulfillment. Illusions for Freud are the things we “would were so” and help us cope with all of the threatening aspects of life.
What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. – Sigmund Freud
In this short essay, I would like to take this kernel of Freud’s thought and draw an analogy to current considerations of race relations in the United States. To this day, many Americans (and I would venture to say many people globally) think there is a biological phenomena called “race” which refers to a group of people who not only share biological characteristics like skin pigmentation but other characteristics like temperament, intelligence, industriousness and moral rectitude to name just a few.
These “racial” differences are assumed to be largely a function of biological destiny and to explain differences in the life outcomes of what are thought of as “racial groups.” Some have even imagined a kind of hierarchy of races often with their own race in the superior position–a wish fulfillment of sorts.
In the absence of verifiable empirical evidence, imagining these sorts of racial differences has provided humankind a handy way of explaining differences in behavior between varying groups. The science of past centuries new nothing of DNA and the workings of the human genome yet we (humankind) wished to be able to account for difference not just in appearance and economic/social outcomes but in how differing groups should orient themselves to one another in order to secure their future and even to prosper.
The concept of race is a bit like the concept of God from the Freudian point of view. It is a kind of wish fulfillment: We would that it were so. We would that race explained fundamental differences between people. We would that if some races were better than others, we would be a member of the better race, share in its blessings and take comfort in being able to ‘justifiably” keep others in their biologically ordained place.
In this sense, racial difference, beyond the most superficial, is an illusion. Modern genetics has given the lie to this illusion just as science and the general advance of human knowledge has given the lie to all manner of previous illusions: the sun orbiting the earth, bleeding a patient being an effective medical intervention, evil spirits bringing disease to our communities, or the salubrious impact of sacrificing animals or one’s first born.
One thing that is not an illusion, because we have plenty of empirical evidence for it, is that we human beings make lots and lots of errors. We do, however, continue to wish that we did not and thereby give birth to new illusions; for example, the oft repeated declaration racism no longer exists, America is the land of the free, social and economic oppression are things of the past, enlightened self-interest is an effective regulator of excess etc. etc.
Perhaps the greatest illusion of all–that hubris is the other person’s problem—continues to rule the day. Illusion may be part of the human condition. We will surely continue to wish for things we do not have but, as we do, we cannot afford to let what we wish were the case to take on the status of settled and all inclusive knowledge. In fact, abandoning known illusions is the only path to the a viable future. Clinging to illusions is deadly. Race as we have used the word for several hundred years is a meaningless term. It is an illusion to think otherwise.
Racism is, however, not an illusion. It is all too real. Combatting racism is a pressing issue especially as the world shrinks in size daily. The illusion of race has had a large hand in creating the reality of racism. Perhaps, one of the first steps in the right direction is for each of us to examine our innermost selves and root out the vestiges of the now illusory definition of race ensuring that this particular illusion does not take another step into the future.