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?