from the protein wisdom archives: “There’s no such thing as race (and it’s a good thing, too)” (UPDATED)
I like to trot out this old essay for MLK day, because it affords me the opportunity to take the race / “diversity” industry—whatever its intentions, be they altruistic or self-serving—to task for its insistence on using King’s legacy as an occasion to promote its logically incoherent (though subjectively and arrogantly pragmatic) prescription for a society “properly” socially engineered by way of color distribution, a faux-scientific policy push I’ve described elsewhere as (in the strictest sense) anti-American, given its structural imperative to privilege group identity over individual autonomy.
Or something like that. Could be I just enjoy calling my educated betters “anti-American.” Because of my well-documented reactionary tendencies. And paste.
In many different contexts, people have continued to identify the Other by reference to phenotypical features (especially skin colour) which therefore serve as indicative of a significant difference. Moreover, they have continued to use the idea of “race” to label that difference. As a result, certain sorts of social relations are defined as “race relations,” as social relations between people of different “races.” Indeed, states legislate to regulate “race relations,” with the result that the reality of race� is apparently legitimated in law (Guillaumin 1980). Thus the idea of “race” has continued to be used in common-sense discourse to identify the Other in many societies, but largely without the sanction of science (R. Miles, Racism, 1989, 1995).
In a widely noticed racial identity case in Louisiana, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, remarking that “the very concept of racial classification of individuals is scientifically unsupportable,” ruled that Mrs. Susie Phipps, “who had always thought she was white, had lived as white, and had twice married as white,” was not in fact white because her parents, who had provided the racial information on her birth certificate, had classified her as “colored.” “Individual racial designations are purely social and cultural perceptions,” the court said; the relevant question, then, was not whether those “subjective perceptions” correctly registered some biological fact about Phipps but whether they had been “correctly recorded” at the time the birth certificate was issued. Since in the court’s judgment they had been, Susie Phipps and her fellow appellants remained “colored” (W. Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, 1995).
IN THE WAKE of the 9/11 terror attacks, many Americans felt, some of them for the very first time, a strange and welcomed emotion—a fillip of unabashed patriotic zeal. And, seizing upon this feeling, they chose (however temporary the change, but given the extraordinary nature of the circumstances), to privilege their common national identity over the more fashionable multiculturalist mandate that it’s somehow wiser to “celebrate our differences”– a weak, bumper-sticker formulation of a much stronger ideological position (that of radical egalitarianism) that for years now has been insinuating itself into education and public policy.
BUT IN A recent spate of news and commentary—be it pundits questioning the ethics of “racial” profiling, or the fallout over the racial makeup of a commemorative statue, or Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz’s announcement that he was taking down a portrait of George Washington (“an old white man,” as Markowitz put it) that hangs in his office to replace it with a portrait of color—we’ve been reminded yet again that we as a country are not nearly through grappling with racial issues. And today, on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our minds can’t help but (re)turn to ideas of race relations, if only to gauge how far we’ve come in the thirty-four years since Dr. King’s assasination. As one university newspaper columnist put it, on King’s birthday, we should be doing nothing if not striving to “learn the culture behind the color.”
AND THERE’S REALLY nothing surprising in this challenge; after all, “learning the culture behind the color” merely echoes (however simplistically) the widespread challenge of many contemporary race theorists who would prefer us to think of “race” as “culture”—as a phenomenon born out of a variety of complex social convergences—and not as a product of any essential* (biological) difference.* That is, contemporary racial theory remains committed to the idea of racial identity, even as it strives to proceed without the appeal to biology that once gave racial identity its primary force.
SO, WHAT DOES it mean to redescribe “race” as “culture”? The force behind this transition from race as something essential into race as something socially constructed is our skepticism over racial difference being somehow biologically determinable. That is, once science (in the mid-1930s) gave up the idea that black blood, say, differs from white blood, it was forced to give up the idea of essentialism that traditional racialists relied upon to separate the races (those familiar with American history are here reminded of the “one drop rule,” a legal statute committed to the idea that black blood made a difference to the intrinsic identity of the person who “carried” that blood in his/her veins).
TODAY, HOWEVER, we recognize that there is no such thing as “black blood” or “white blood,” and so in order to account for our perceivable differences—in order, that is, to continue the project of racial identification—race theorists have sought to turn the essentialist project of racial identification into the anti-essentialist project of racial construction. In short, the “racial” has become the “cultural,” and the “cultural” has become the supposedly anti-essentialist foundation for group identity.
THE QUESTION, then, is this: if “race” is now “culture,” and “culture” is an anti-essentialistic social construct, how can we account for our “differences”? Clearly, pigmentation is not full proof; after all, many of those who think of themselves as black don’t “look black,” just as many of those who think of themselves as white may not “look white” (historically, this failure of perception to secure racial identity manifests itself in this country in the 19th and early-20th-century phenomenon of “passing”). Which would suggest that the answer, if it is the aim to continue the project of racial identity, must rest elsewhere—with the constructionist’s notion of culture.
BUT IF CULTURE IS DEFINED as the set of beliefs and practices adopted or performed by a specific group of people, then the idea of using “culture” as a means of determining race is equally problematic. Under such conditions, all that is required to adopt a particular racial identity is to believe in the things that “they” believe in, to practice the things that “they” practice. Which means that once we stop believing those beliefs or practicing those practices, we’ve ceased to belong to that culture, ceased to belong to that race.
BUT SURELY shedding your racial identity can’t be as simple as removing a hat—which means that something else must underlie claims for racial identity, something other than either the essentialist’s appeal to biology or the anti-essentialist’s appeal to practices and beliefs. This “something else” or “something other,” the argument goes, is “heritage”—defined as a cultural tradition or body of knowledge handed down from prior generations.
AS WITH “culture,” however, staking racial identity claims on heritage proves just as delicate and dubious a maneuver. Because a cultural tradition or body of knowledge can be handed down, presumably, to anybody (through education, for instance), then the real claim offered here is that the particular heritage in question must already somehow belong to the person who receives it if indeed it is to count, in a meaningful way, as her/his heritage. Which is only to say that in order to know which heritage is yours, you must first know who you are.
BUT WHAT IS IT that allows you to know who you are, and so to decide which history—which heritage—is yours? If, for instance, you are a black child adopted into a white family, what is it that makes you “black”? If the answer is heritage, then your identity presumably depends upon which heritage your adopted parents choose to teach you, or which you choose, ultimately, to teach yourself. But how does your learning your black heritage (assuming this is what you choose to do) count as your having learned your “true” heritage? That is, what is it that makes a particular heritage yours to learn to begin with?
ONE ANSWER commonly offered by race and identity theorists is the idea of group “memory”—the charge being that to “remember” a particular past, rather than simply to learn about a particular past, is what makes that past your past. But how do you go about “remembering” something you’ve never actually experienced? That is, how do your “memories” of a non-experienced past come to count as memories at all? And more importantly, what is it that differentiates your “memories” of a particular past from someone else’s “knowledge” of a particular past? Can a young Jewish boy really “remember” the Holocaust any better than a ninety-year old German woman who worked around the camps? Can a young black girl really “remember” slavery? (Do modern-day Texans really “remember” the Alamo?) Or is what’s happening here simply a matter of your remembering having learned a pre-chosen history in order to claim it as your own?
THE POINT of all this being that to think of race as somehow socially constructed is to think of race, ultimately, as something essentially essential. Because what makes your memories yours, what makes your heritage yours, and what makes your culture yours is your insistence, ultimately, that it is yours by right, yours by birth, yours by essence. And so race, as it turns out, is either an essence or an illusion. Those who believe race to be an essence (say, the KKK, who base their ideas on bad science) have no need for a project of qualifying race as a social construct; and those who believe race to be non-essential have no grounds, theoretically, for promoting racial identity other than that same bad science (which, it turns out, underlies the constructivist argument), or else their social concern that we somehow need to continue the project of racial identity, for whatever the political reasons.
AND PERHAPS they are right. But maybe it’s time to seize on the lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks; that is, maybe it’s time we put aside our differences in order to construct a singular American identity. After all, we are each individuals, which is what makes us, ultimately, a nation.
*written in commemoration of MLK Day and posted January 2002
update: A few commenters have questioned the notion that there is no scientific evidence for “race,” noting that allele distribution, etc., supplies the data for a scientific exploration of racial categorization, and rehabilitates “race” from the perspective of the hard sciences.
But there is a problem with such assertions, which tend to redefine race for the express purpose of saving it as a category. In this way, they are no different than the social constructionists I discuss in the essay proper, who likewise try to empty race of its signification in order to bend it to their will.
What follows is my response to Steve Sailer, whom I debated on this very question several years back:
A few days back, I engaged in an extended set of debates with several interested parties on the idea of race—the back and forth of which prompted Steve Sailer, founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute, to pass along the link to his speech, delivered in abridged form at the Reagan Library on July 17, 2002.
The occasion and purpose of Mr. Sailer’s speech I’ll let him describe:
For the last two summers, University of California’s Ward Connerly, leader of the successful 1996 Proposition 209 campaign outlawing racial preferences in California and the 2004 Racial Privacy Initiative, has hosted a small but wide-ranging conference at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This year, he asked Boston U. anthropologist Peter Wood, author of the upcoming book Diversity: A Biography of a Concept, and I to debate the fundamental question of whether race is a biologically meaningful concept. This provided me with a wonderful opportunity to outline my approach at adequate length before a distinguished audience.
Sailer’s idea involves redefining the term “race” in order to account for the actual DNA-level differences population geneticists use to distinguish between hereditary groups. Sailer defines race this way: “A racial group is an extended family that is inbred to some degree.”
In this regard, Sailer’s idea of racial categorization is similar in theory to Dr. Neil Risch’s “crude” (as Sailer characterizes it) top-down continental-scale taxonomy — the difference being that Mr. Sailer’s approach relies on a “bottom-up” model, which he describes this way: “the bottom-up approach simply eliminates any compulsion to draw arbitrary lines regarding whether a difference is big enough to be racial. With enough inbreeding, hereditary differences will emerge that will first be recognizable to the geneticist, then to the physical anthropologist, and finally to the average person.”
Below is my response to Mr. Sailer, which I sent him via email:
Thanks for providing the link to your presentation, ‘It’s All Relative: Putting Race in its Proper Perspective,’ in the comments section of my weblog.
A few notes in response to your piece, if I may.
First, you write:
My definition of race offers that kind of conceptual power that allows us to [think through ways to resolve conflict] for a host of other [racial] issues.
What practical steps are implied by this family-based definition of race?
First, if race is a natural, omnipresent potential fault line in human affairs, that suggests to me that we Americans should be extremely wary of using the vast power of the government to exacerbate the natural divisiveness of race by officially classifying people by race.
I agree with this, and I’ve said as much in my comments, which is precisely why I take the position that “race” (as we conceive of it in the U.S.) is problematic, and that government-sponsored social programs that rely on faulty ideas of “race” are divisive and counterproductive; whereas forging a national identity (which is “real” in the sense that citizenship is a legal category—not so slippery as “race") is a more socially beneficial identity goal—provided we continue as a society to find workable ways to account for the most unfortunate of our citizens.
Where I think we disagree is on the need to save the term “race” itself. You define race this way: “A racial group is an extended family that is inbred to some degree.”
Later on you write:
Various euphemisms have been tried without much success. For example, the geneticists, such as the distinguished Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford, who study what the normal person would call ‘race,’ don’t call themselves ‘racial geneticists.’ Instead, they blandly label themselves ‘population geneticists.’
That allows them at least sometimes to sneak their research projects by under the radar of the politically correct. But it’s important to realize that they are not using ‘population’ in the non-racial sense of phrases like ‘California’s population’ or ‘UCLA’s student population,’ but in the specific sense of ‘hereditary populations’ such as the Japanese or the Icelanders or the Navajo.
Among all the different kinds of ‘populations,’ the only ones population geneticists study are the ones whose members tend to share genes because they tend to share genealogies.
That’s what I’d call a ‘racial group.’ But, if you don’t like the word ‘race,’ well, maybe we should just hire one of those firms that invent snazzy new names like ‘Exxon’ for unfashionable old corporations like Standard Oil, and then hire an ad agency to publicize this new name for ‘race.’
This last is (I think) an unfortunatly glib dismissal of the crux of the argument being made by many of us who take the “no such thing as race” track. That is, if most of us in the US use “race” to mean something other (and opposed) to the definition of race you are offering (you note: “The way most Americans currently think about race tends to fall in between rigor and absurdity. The consensus American view is full of contradictions, obsolete ideas, and fantasies"), then what purpose does it serve to maintain the category “race” to begin with?—as opposed to, say, “hereditary genetics”? Not as catchy as Exxon, perhaps—but also thankfully emptied of the kind of baggage “race” carries with it. PoMo theorists have done much of the work by emptying the concept of “race” (as it’s been used legally in the history of US jurisprudence) of its (mostly faulty or overbroad) essentialist freight. Why reivigorate it by applying new signification ("an extended family that is inbred to some degree") to the signifier?
The reason I argue (academically) that race doesn’t exist is because “race” as you use the term—distinguishable by genetic patterns evident among members of extended, inbred families—is not a description available to most people who are seeking to lay claim to a particular “racial” identity. And that is because most people, obviously, aren’t privy to the significance of the mapping in their genetic makeup. Instead, they rely on a kind of hodgepodge of signifiers—from geographical heritage (my Dad is Irish), to verbal history (my great great great Grandmother on my Mother’s side was Native American—at least, that’s how the story goes), to visible iconic signifiers (nappy hair, eyelid fat, skin color).
And so the question becomes this: if “race” is not what we think it is, why should something we don’t think race to be come to count as “race” at all? As I mentioned in my several posts, I’m not denying genetic patterns or similarities uncovered by population geneticists—just as I wouldn’t think to deny obvious, Richard Pryor-esque signs pointing to a tenuous type of suggested kinship. But why must we use an outmoded and overdetermined signifier such as “race” when “hereditary genetics” or “extended-bred family” would do just fine, and is a more precise description of what the science itself is purporting to study? Your answer seems to be that it would take time and an especially gifted and motivated PR firm to cause such terms to catch on, whereas “race” is conveniently available, having been stripped of it’s most disagreeable connotations.
My point is, that to rid ourselves of the social artifice we’ve built around our long-running misunderstanding of the term race, we’re best off ridding ourselves of the term itself (as a scientific category)—particularly because there’s no essential connection between the term “race” and the idea of “hereditary population genetics.” Ridding ourselves of the old category doesn’t somehow make actual genetic histories disappear; what it does do, though, is diminishes the power of the social/governmental “race” industry so active—and so often divisive, to my way of thinking—in our country.
update: my reply to Jill at Feministe can be found here.