BIDDEFORD — Every so often, something happens that forces white Americans to think about race. Usually, we briefly wake up to reality and then drift off to sleep again, but recently white Americans have had a hard time sleeping soundly. A whole series of well-publicized incidents have called attention to the nightmare of racism in 21st-century America.

Earlier this month the media were ablaze with news of Rachel Dolezal, who presented herself as a woman of color until she was outed by her parents as white.

Then, on June 17, the Dolezal affair was eclipsed by news of a young white supremacist named Dylann Storm Roof, who strode into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and gunned down nine human beings because they were black.

Both the outraged responses to Rachel Dolezal and the massacre of innocents by Dylann Roof are symptoms of the same disease. I call it “the race delusion.”

NOT A MATTER OF SKIN COLOR

To wrap your mind around this, you’ve first got to consider what races are supposed to be.

It’s common to equate race with skin color. This idea is suggested by terms like “black” and “white” (even though “white” people’s skin isn’t really white and “black” people’s skin isn’t really black).

But this just can’t be right. If skin color was all that there is to race, then a person would be able to change their race merely by changing her appearance (as Rachel Dolezal claims to have done). As we’ve seen, that doesn’t fly.

So what’s really going on when we think racially?

Although many of us don’t like to admit it, even to ourselves, we tend to think of race as more than skin deep. We imagine that every member of a race shares something deep inside that’s unique to members of that race.

This “racial essence” is imagined to be carried in the blood, or located in the genes, and passed down the “bloodline” from one generation to the next. It’s also supposed to be unchangeable.

This notion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Poke at it even a little, and it collapses like a house of cards. If race is purportedly a fact about our biology, then biologists should be experts on it. In fact, biologists deny that race is in the blood or that there are genes for blackness and whiteness.

If race isn’t biological, then couldn’t it be a cultural thing?

No, that doesn’t make sense either. African-Americans, Jamaicans and Ethiopians have vastly different cultures, but they’re all lumped together as “black.” There’s no rational justification for our everyday concept of race.

Race is a delusion. Like all delusions, it’s an emotionally driven belief that flies in the face of reality and is impervious to contrary evidence. To cure ourselves of the race delusion, we’ve got to root out and extinguish the forces that sustain it. To do this, we have to trace back its origin.

The idea that there are black and white races came from a clash between conscience and capitalism. Soon after Europeans arrived on these shores, they realized that huge fortunes could be made from sugar, cotton, tobacco and other crops.

To fuel the capitalist machine, more than 10 million Africans were transported to the Americas in chains, to be tortured, terrorized, and worked to death for profit.

The beneficiaries of these atrocities needed to square them with the demands of conscience.

In an astonishing feat of self-deception, they came to believe that Africans were fundamentally different from themselves: inferior creatures, more like primitive animals than true human beings. The otherness of Africans was thought to be unchangeable, inscribed in their flesh and blood.

DEEPLY ENTRENCHED DELUSION

After more than two centuries, slavery was officially abolished in this country, but African-Americans continued to be effectively enslaved well into the 20th century. By that time, the idea of black and white races had become so deeply entrenched in the national psyche, and so tightly woven into the social and political fabric of the country, that it seemed self-evidently true.

History was whitewashed and contemporary injustices were concealed behind a fog of rationalizations. That’s how white Americans learned to live a lie.

We’ll never free ourselves from the race delusion unless we’re prepared to confront the enormity of our national crime and open our eyes to its hideous legacy of suffering and injustice.

The Germans have somehow managed to come to terms with their Holocaust. It remains to be seen whether we are able and willing to do the same.