by Iskra Fileva Ph.D.
Some supremacists believe they deserve credit for others’ accomplishments.
White supremacists like to say that most of the achievements of Western Civilization were achievements of white men. It is common to respond to such claims by drawing attention to the contributions of non-white, non-male people, or to the cultural conditions (for instance, lack of access to educational opportunities) which, through most of history, made it extremely difficult for non-white, non-male persons to make a significant cultural contribution.
These are important points, but there is something else that is generally missed: When white supremacists make claims of the sort under discussion, they appear to be suggesting that they somehow get to claim credit for the achievements of some great person with whom they share a superficial characteristic such as skin color. Otherwise, why draw attention to that characteristic at all? What difference does it make? That is not the reason the person deserves praise and recognition.
The problem here is that we simply don’t get to claim credit for the accomplishments of other people unless, perhaps, they are our children or trainees (and even there, we must be careful). If you didn’t do any of the work, you don’t get any of the rewards either.
The temptation to attempt to proceed on a different assumption is understandable. Actual achievement is hard. It requires years of work, focus, and dedication. It is so much easier to take a shortcut to a flattering self-image, bathing in the reflected glory of others. Unfortunately for those tempted, it simply doesn’t matter what group characteristic you share or don’t share with Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, or Beethoven. If you want to be like them, you must make significant contributions to science or art. Attending supremacist rallies won’t make anyone else’s successes rub off on you. To suppose otherwise is simply magical thinking.
There may, of course, be cases in which we are responsible for what a collective agent whose member we are does or doesn’t do, as when a person from country A goes along with country A’s invasion of another country. But the question of collective responsibility is a separate one. It involves actions that can be attributed, intelligibly, to groups of people. That cannot be done with the achievements of Newton or Leonardo, which is why no one is in fact suggesting that theirs are collective achievements in the relevant sense.
One can argue also that society as a whole contributes to great accomplishments indirectly, by creating the right social conditions for talented people to realize their talents. There are three things to note here: First, society does not always create favorable conditions, actually. For instance, Giordano Bruno – mathematician, poet, and philosopher, and one of the finest minds of his era – was burned at the stake for heresy. Galileo was ordered by the Inquisition (whose members were white men, incidentally, though white supremacists conveniently focus on people like Galileo rather than on the inquisitors) to abstain from teaching and defending his doctrine; namely, that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Some people succeed despite social conditions, not thanks to them.article continues after advertisement
Second, to the extent that society does create favorable conditions, it is not only people of a particular group who deserve credit. Society, after all, has a wide mix of people.
Finally, note that most of the successes of Western civilization are due to people now long dead. Barring the possibility of a time machine, none of us – regardless of race, gender, or any other characteristic one cares to name – could have possibly contributed, however indirectly, to the discovery of the laws of motion, the painting of Mona Lisa, or the composing of Beethoven’s 5th.