Against Race and Ethnicity

In my first post on this blog, I mentioned the fluidity of racial categories over time. Now I’d like to build on that by showing the essential illegitimacy of the concepts of race and ethnicity.

To the extent that race exists, it is not an inherent characteristic of an individual human being but a socially attributed categorization. One person would belong to different races in different times or places—that is, not only would he be considered to belong to different races, he actually would, to the extent that anyone actually does belong to any race. I mentioned in my previous post that Americans of Irish, German, Mediterranean, and Jewish descent were not considered “white” earlier in the country’s history, although they are now, and that it appears that the “white” identity is beginning to include Americans of Asian descent as well. This is because race is not a category based in biology or any other science, despite the public perception of it as somehow scientific. As the American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Race” says,

it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them.

The statement, which everyone should read in full, goes on to mention that many scholars today believe the modern American idea of race “was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America.” Whether or not this account of race’s origin is entirely accurate, it is certainly true that our conception of race is particular to a certain time and place. We should endeavor to alienate ourselves from the view that race exists everywhere as a predetermined category and always functions the way it does in America.

These are ideas we are often superficially exposed to: there is more variation within than between races, race is a social construct, all men are created equal. I think we often fail to internalize their true meaning. For example, when I bring up the lack of grounding behind the idea of “race” and its mutability over time, people sometimes respond that we may accept Americans of Irish, Italian, etc. descent as “white” today, but these country-of-origin labels still appear under the heading “ethnicity.” The idea here is that ethnicity is the truly valid category that stays constant while races change.

This could not be farther from the truth. The word “ethnicity” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1953; it is a modern coinage. As eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racial categories broke down during the twentieth century and the tent of whiteness was opened to a load of new people, vestiges of the old separations remained under the new and lesser heading “ethnicity.” It is my opinion that these vestiges too were on the path to irrelevance and oblivion when their descent was halted by the rise of postmodernism, which led to an anti-rationalist upsurge in minority identification.

So race and ethnicity are socially attributed rather than essential labels. Perhaps that goes some way towards making them illegitimate, since it is an article of faith of the ideology of race and ethnicity that these are in fact essential characteristics. That is, race and ethnicity are socially defined to be essential; if they are not essential, the definitions are wrong. But does all of this make them bad or harmful?

Let us assume for a moment that it is human nature, or at least a persistent human tendency, to discriminate against other humans based on what I will call “distinguishable differences.” “Distinguishable differences” is not a binary category. Wine connoisseurship is not very distinguishable, right-handedness is somewhat more distinguishable, athletic ability and intelligence are pretty distinguishable, and skin color, number of limbs, and height are extremely distinguishable. Under what circumstances will the presence of distinguishable differences within a population lead to discrimination? In a population where most people share an allele for some distinguishable difference—say, they are all tall or tan-skinned—and there are a very few individuals with a different allele, collective discrimination is unlikely to occur. Thus albinos and midgets may experience individual discrimination (they might be stared at as they walk down the street or be exploited in freak shows), but not to my knowledge collective discrimination (legal denial of rights, pogroms, genocide).

In a population where everyone has a different allele for a distinguishable difference, discrimination is unlikely to occur. Or is it? In fact, isn’t this always the case? As we have seen, no “race” is homogeneous. In the case of skin color, for example, “black” and “white” each represent a range of tones. Why have we decided that they form two basic groups along the line that we have chosen, rather than three, four, or five? “It’s not like we were picking a number at random,” a racialist might respond. “Whites were from Europe and blacks were from Africa, and they each had their own range of skin colors.” This is to confuse the chicken and the egg. We grouped the range of skin colors found in America into “white” and “black” in order to be able to draw a neater distinction between those of European descent and those of African descent. The difference between a society that discriminates based on a certain distinguishable difference and a society that doesn’t is not that the former are characterized by a more binary distribution of alleles; it is that the former society has set its tolerance (to use the Photoshop term) for variation within and between groups to produce the correct number (usually two) of neat categories.

Race and ethnicity are ideologies that assist discrimination by essentializing certain distinguishable differences. The idea of blackness in America is built on one distinguishable difference alone (skin color), which is conveniently coextensive with descent from Africans. On top of this one distinguishable difference, the ideology of race adds a slew of other characteristics—hip-hop culture, a certain brand of energetic Protestantism, AAVE—which in reality are shared by some but not all black Americans.

I use blackness as an example because conversations about “race” in America are generally about blackness, and because it is one racial category through which it is easy to see the damage discrimination has wrought. But any racial or ethnic category has the potential for harm, given our maybe-natural propensity for discrimination, and I can’t see any good that can come from them.

I will end this post by asking readers to name one positive aspect of treating racial and ethnic categories as legitimate or grounded in objective reality. I would like to preempt one possible answer by saying that yes, it is good that doctors know that, for example, people of African descent are more likely to suffer from sickle-cell anemia, but if there were a correlation between redheadedness, or left-handedness, or having one ear higher than the other, and sickle-cell anemia, that would not be a reason to reify those traits into social categories with their own particular style of music, religion, dialect, etc.

Questions for commenters: Take up my challenge and give me one good reason why race and ethnicity aren’t illegitimate and harmful. Also, what do you think of my distinction between individual and collective discrimination? Do you think the tendency to discriminate based on distinguishable differences is a part of human nature?

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5 Responses to “Against Race and Ethnicity”

  1. Wilfredo Says:

    “Yes, it is good that doctors know that, for example, people of African descent are more likely to suffer from sickle-cell anemia, but…”

    Ah! I think you may have touched on something crucial here. Anything you can get good statistics out of is going to hang around. Race’s “essential” objective validity doesn’t matter: what makes a difference is empirical statistical groupings. Not for individual ideology, mind you–I’m not at all saying, “Well, I would cross the street because it’s statistically safer…” I’m talking about large-scale management of populations–hygiene, economics, crime, and so on. Because categories like “black” are (a) visible, (b) statistically linked to certain things government or medicine attempts to manage (disease, crime, poverty), they’ll still be used, whether or not individuals essentialize them.

    Which raises a question. Your main argument here is that people have no basis for /believing/ that race essentially and objectively exists. But the management of populations through statistics, as I’ve just discussed, doesn’t depend on belief or essentializing. It must be critiqued independently of ideology.

    And (here’s the punchline) I think your post on Medical Morality already started this critique.

  2. Wilfredo,
    First of all, I’m not convinced that race is as statistically useful a category as you claim. As I said, being black is a useful predictor of susceptibility to sickle-cell anemia, but this is because race is a not-bad predictor of ancestral origin, and susceptibility to sickle-cell anemia is concentrated within (descendants of) one historical population. This is not necessarily the case for matters of economics or crime. For example, poverty is probably a better predictor of crime (and types of crime) than race; if that isn’t the case it could only be because of racism, as far as I can see. And if that is the case because of racism, it will only be the case for as long as racism exists to any appreciable extent.

    Regardless, even if the government or other population managers use race as a useful statistic, it’s still harmful and avoidable for individuals to essentialize it. So, as I am arguing, they should cut that out.

    Would you care to continue the critique of population management through statistics that I started in Medicine as Morality?
    -Vicente

  3. I agree with a great deal of what Vicente says. But I think he is wrong that if race were a better predictor of crime than poverty, then the only explanation for that face would be racism. Racism would certainly be one explanation, but certainly not the only one. If race were a better predictor of crime (or poor athletic ability, or whatever), it could easily be because the quality in question is mediated through culture. That is, if members of one group have a quality or engage in a certain type of behavior more than members of contrasting groups, the reason could be because the groups have at least somewhat distinct cultures and values, which can directly or indirectly encourage or discourage crime (or whatever). And that is even aside from any discussion of genetics.

  4. I have not been following much discussion on here, but I don’t think it matters whether putting people into racial categories is legitimate or illegitimate because such definitions are socially constructed; we define them. Epistemological problems with defining things as legitimate and illegitimate categories also raise tricky questions about authenticity that we can never really answer. Pure categories, such as race, do not truly exist–everything is a kind of hybrid, in a sense (excuse the term, as hybridization implies that it has arisen out of pure categories)–but we must ask ourselves why have used this category above all others to highlight difference in humanity and why we continue to use it. Was it just much easier to judge people based on a phenotype to form alliance and break into different societies? I don’t know, as people by such classifications sometimes create difference where little seems to exist biologically, but we cannot refute that these difference, whether they exist or not, have created much diversity in human life.

    I don’t know in what sense races differ biologically, or how they might have arisen categorically out of such biological difference, but people clearly invented such categories for a reason, and it would be wrong to say that they have not helped human kind. Perhaps it is inherent in humans to make categories to order the world, by whichever method, and race and ethnicity just happened to be the luck winners to help humans negotiate the world.

    Nonetheless, the strategic essentialising that have crystallized to form racial categories has been used to help empower groups of people that belong to certain races. The civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s is a prime example of this; blacks (and other groups to an extent) banded under the banner of their race to gain rights of those of the majority of society. Strategic essentialism can hurt, but they can also empower certain marginalized groups.

    Certain groups, however, become trapped by categories we have placed them. Indigenous populations in South America have been trapped by such double-edged strategic essentialisms that they once used to protect their lands and culture, but also preserve the people in static categories that make it difficult for one to see their culture as part of a continuum and hinder them from participating in the global economy by means such as exploiting the natural resources of their land for profit. This is wrong, but to what extent can we escape the categories society has placed on us?

    People judge others based on these categories, so even if you freed yourself of such labeling, others who are not free would still see you in the same way. Racial culture has become so ingrained in our lives that certain races are even portrayed to behave in distinguishable ways, how can one behave in a way that transcends race? I don’t think we are even able to perceive or conceptualize such a behavior. Also, who is to say that even if we all looked the same, and racial categories did not exist, some other physical or mental category would not take its place?

  5. Petra,
    Although I probably disagree with you, I like a lot of what you have to say. You have a point, I think, that my accusation of illegitimacy has some problems of its own.

    I have two main responses to the bulk of your comment. First, you argue that racial consciousness helped the civil rights movement fight racial discrimination in the ’60s and ’70s. I would respond that in a raceless society, which is what I’m advocating for here, there wouldn’t have been racial discrimination to fight. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be problems in such a society, but I don’t think race would help fight them. So all your example would prove is that racial consciousness is potentially useful in dealing with the harmful effects of race, not that racial consciousness is always potentially useful. Also, I think it’s possible that oppressed people can join together as oppressed people, with the common and temporary aim of lifting their oppression, rather than as a race. It could be argued that this wouldn’t have looked any different from the civil rights movement in the ’60s.

    A lot of what you say seems to focus on the difficulty or even the impossibility of achieving a race-free society. If it isn’t possible, it isn’t possible, and I think that would be a sad thing, but it can often be too easy to conclude that things are the way they are because they have to be that way. I do think our conceptions of race and ethnicity have changed a lot over the past few centuries, so it’s not out of the question that we might have a lot more change ahead of us. Personally, I could envision a race-blind society. I don’t know exactly how to get there from here, but that seems like a whole nother post in itself.
    -Vicente

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