The most brutal and unforgiving aspect of racism is the way that, for the suffering victim, the cause of suffering can never be erased. Hate me because I am a criminal and I can reform; hate me because of my wealth and I can give it away; but hate me because of the blood in my veins and there is nothing I can do but vainly hope that you will change. This creates horrific psychological circumstances for the victim because even if racism is only tacit or only exists at the margins of society, it is forever there as a dividing line between potential sufferers of it and perpetrators. Racism is as ineradicable as other human evils.
Man - if not all, then certainly some - has a tendency towards racism as part of his in-built nature, but he also has the ability to shed his racism through reason. If you do not believe the former assertion, I present as evidence the entirety of human history and your contemporary surroundings. Do not let your own beliefs, however true, blind you to the delusions of others. Like all things that rest on reason and against people's in-built prejudices, opposition to racism is fragile. This is not to excuse racism, but merely to recognize that it will always exist and always be prone to come to the fore at times of societal stress. As an analogy, one does not condone murder, but one would be a downright fool to deny that murderers exist and always will exist.
Perched in their comfortable homes in Western Europe, my ancestors knew nothing of the diversity of life in the rest of the world and were shocked to discover that men lived in such inhospitable conditions in Africa that they had been burned black by the sun. The mere fact of different skin colour was a profound shock, just as it was a shock to those encountering white people for the first time. But the disparity of power gave whites something extra - it gave them an enormous feeling of superiority. A "civilized" European had not the mental apparatus to realize his common humanity with other races, who lived so differently from him and in what appeared to him to be retrograde conditions.
Europeans were much more likely to retreat into their prejudice than to suddenly invent the doctrine of human rights out of the ether. They did not know that the world was a huge globe filled with an enormous variety of ways of living and that they were not the centre of it - they shared these misconceptions with every other civilization that has existed. What was tragic was that they became the first people to be able to extend their power on a global level and allow their prejudices to lead to injustice on such a titanic scale. They were horribly wrong and we do not excuse them - but any of you who thinks you would have immediately penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man upon encountering an African tribe in 1650 is deluding yourself.
Thankfully change came and the theoretical and scientific basis for racism was thoroughly eradicated. Europeans invented the Rights of Man out of parochial self-interest - as an assertion by the lower classes against the aristocracy, who practiced a racism of their own - and then finally they recognized, at least in theory, that these rights extended to all of the people on the globe. These gains were hard won in ambiguous circumstances, and they are threatened. Social racism remains as a plague in the West, operating in ways too numerous to count - from the subtle tyranny of low expectations to downright discrimination.
Even our theoretical acceptance of everyone's equality has not eradicated prejudice, and in a sense it can cover it up. It is very hard for someone who has not suffered racism to understand what it feels like, and sufferers often feel an inability to communicate their feelings except to fellow sufferers. An atmosphere of theoretical acceptance can actually create shame in suffering racism, as if one is letting the side down by highlighting prejudice and drawing attention to an unwelcome and uneasy fact. No-one knew this better than European Jews during the nineteenth century, where in certain cities the collective identity of the Jews broke down and they all sought an individual escape into society via assimilation and a denial of their Jewish birth.
One such person was Rahel Varnhagen, a Jew from Berlin who was born towards the end of the eighteenth century. Rahel lived at a time when Jewish emancipation was proceeding but the most horrible social prejudices remained; and she lived with them all her life, a woman destroyed and driven to melancholy brooding by her complete alienation from the world around her. Society would not accept her in Berlin, no matter how much she wished to join in - she was marked out by what she called her "infamous birth" for ever.
All this intelligent, vivacious woman wanted her whole life was to be accepted and given a place in the world of her own. Any place would have been better than none. Unable to find acceptance, she poured her heart into diaries and letters, trying with all her might to prevent her own passage from history in silent death - Rahel wanted to leave a testimony to the ages, in the hope that even though those around her could not understand, that someone in the future would do so. I do not understand you, Rahel - I never can. I am not the first man to be captivated by this woman across the centuries and I will not be the last, but even I will close these books soon and they will drift from my memory and it will be again like she never existed.
When this happens, there is one thing I want to remember for ever. It is this dream of Rahel's, which she related in conversation to two different men in an attempt to gain their understanding. It is the most eloquent and yet the simplest expression of what it means to suffer racism - to never be freed from one's birth in a society that sees that birth as a disgrace - that I know of. It must also be one of the earliest written accounts of what it was like to suffer racism in modern Europe. I'd like you to remember it as well.
Rahel dreamed that she was up in Heaven with Bettina Brentano - a writer and social outcast, but not a Jew - and the Mother of God. They were looking back on their lives and discussing their misfortunes in a "kind of confessional".
"Do you know mortification?" we asked each other, for instance. And if we had felt this particular form of suffering in our lives, we said: "Yes that I know", with a loud cry of grief, and the particular form of suffering we were speaking of was rent from the heart, the pain multiplied a hundredfold: but then we were rid of it forever and felt wholly sound and light. The Mother of God was quiet all the while, only said Yes! to each question, and also wept.
Bettina asked: "Do you know the suffering of love?" Whimpering and almost howling, I exclaimed, while the tears streamed and I held a handkerchief over my face, a long, long Yes! "Do you know mortification?" Yes! again yes. "Do you know enduring wrong, injustice?" Yes! "Do you know murdered youth?" Yes! I whimper again in a long-drawn-out tone, dissolving in tears.
We are finished, our hearts pure, but mine was still filled with the heavy burden of earth; I sit up, look excitedly at the other women, and want my burden taken from me; in words spoken thickly, but with extreme distinctness, because I want to receive the answer Yes to this question too, I ask: "Do you two know — disgrace?" Both shrink away from me as if in horror, though with still something of pity in their gesture; they glance rapidly at one another and try, in spite of the confined space, to move away from me.
In a state bordering on madness I scream: "I have not done anything. It's nothing I have done. I have not done anything. I am innocent!" The women believe me; I see that by the rigid way they lie still, no longer unwillingly, but they no longer understand me. "Woe," I cry out, weeping as if my heart were threatening to melt away, "they do not understand me either. Never, then! This burden I must keep; I knew that. Forever! Merciful God! Woe!" Utterly beside myself, I hastened my awakening."
Rahel dreamed this dream for many years and she never found anyone - from Berlin to Paris to Prague - who would understand it or not recoil from the attempt to do so. She died in 1833, married to a man who could never understand the "disgrace" she felt at her own birth - and yet was her only friend in the world. Her tragedy has been repeated hundreds of millions of times and will be again.