Today while I was driving home from dinner I heard a song that I had never remembered hearing before from Three Dog Night, called Black And White. The song itself was a fairly obvious affair as far as those songs go, pointing to black ink and white pages as being evidence of how black and white can work together and how it is that black children can enjoy the same education and the same opportunities that many white children received. The song is certainly far less cringeworthy than many other songs of its type, but it is easy enough to understand why the song itself has been forgotten. It is my opinion at least that at least two motives hinder most such songs as that one is from being well-remembered. For one, it may be awkward and embarrassing for people to think that a song with such an obvious point and message needed to be made in the first place and might have been thought as being even remotely provocative and daring in the early 1970’s. Another, less praiseworthy motive in forgetting the song is to signal a discrediting of the colorblind antiracist thinking that the song itself presents in favor of a view of race as being essential in what is the mirror image of the old racism of anti-black thinking in the new racism of anti-white thinking.
In this environment it is instructive to spend at least some time thinking about the lengthy tradition of color blind racism in the thinking of the West. It is necessary to do so because some people, ignorant of history, consider Western thinking to have been and even to be irredeemably racist, in stark contrast to the thought of other civilizations. Besides, as someone whose ethnic and cultural heritage springs from the West, I know my own civilization the best and can speak the most authoritatively about it. Be that as it may, the song I heard and its specific style of reasoning reminded me of the writings of Thomas Aquinas when dealing with race where the race and ethnicity and skin color were seen as accidental qualities and not essential qualities that determined one’s status as a being. A blue chair and a red chair, for example, have a different color but are both obviously equally chairs. Their color does not affect their status as chairs, nor would the fact that one of them was a stiff wooden chair and the other a comfortable recliner. And so it is with any category of being or object.
It may not be immediately obvious where this idea comes from or how it got to the people in Three Dog Night. It is fair to wonder, for example, whether the songwriter(s) in Three Dog Night were consciously aware of the Thomist thinking I had just described. If they were (and I do not know that they were), the most likely place for them to learn such philosophical ideas would have been through Catholic or some kind of other religious education. Thomas Aquinas, of course, did not invent such ideas. He learned them from the Muslim and Muslim-influenced translators of ancient Greek texts, and one can find the same ideas about accidental and essential qualities while reading Aristotle as was done by the serious thinkers of Europe and the Middle East at the time. Nor is it to be assumed that these ideas were merely Greek in nature, as reading the Apostle Paul in Galatians, or the Hebrew literary prophets, and going back at least to Psalm 87 dealt with the same matters as background being inessential but faith and behavior being essential to one’s humanity and one’s redemption.
What is without a doubt, though, is that anyone who was serious-minded for the last 3000 years or so within the religious and philosophical traditions of the West would have been exposed to color-blind antiracist thinking. Whether or not such thinking sank in with everyone exposed to it or not, it was in the air. It should not have been daring in the early 1970’s to make songs that demonstrated such thinking that accidental qualities should not hinder our respect for people. Nor should it be thought of that accidental qualities are unimportant. It is accidental qualities that make for the joy and pleasure of life, the exploration of what is beautiful, or the enjoyment of what is tasty, and so on. Yet beautiful landscapes are no more landscapes than ugly ones, for all of their beauty. Tasty vegetables are no more vegetables than ones one does not happen to enjoy; vegetables are vegetables for their essential qualities, after all. And the same is true for people, and it always has been, and always will be, whether or not we are able to separate our enjoyment (or irritation) of the accidental and inessential from our respect for what connects us and what we all share.