Friday, November 12, 2010

Mills on Materializing Race

A materialist critique of race--one that situates race with material social life--is the kind of understanding that leftists desperately need today. Rather than discussing race within the rarefied realm of "pure discourse", we see that race is historically concrete and inscribed within the basic set of institutions that make up modern capitalism.

Another bonus provided by this way of understanding race is that we get (yet another) means of unmasking the preposterous blathering of charlatans like Walter Benn Michaels for what it is (PS: Jacobin- I harbor no hard feelings about your generally interesting and thoughtful magazine. But WBM is a charlatan and I'm (respectfully) disappointed that you gave him a forum to further disseminate his views on the Left).

Mills's introduction to the talk lays out the existing political terrain of contemporary racism well. As he puts it, today we have both traditional and nouveau racism. Traditional racism, rooted in the racial "science" of the 19th and 20th centuries (phrenology, eugenics, Nazi Rassenwissenschaft, etc. etc.), held the scientifically false view that distinct "races" existed by nature and could be biologically demarcated. Although "scientific" or "traditional" racism received serious blows during the 20th Century (especially in the wake of Auschwitz), it is making a steady comeback. The idea is that the human species can, on the basis of inherited biological properties, be carved up into clearly demarcated subgroups (i.e. races), who have distinct behavioral patterns, mental capacities, drives, sexual tendencies, moral beliefs, cultures, etc.

But modern science has consistently shown that such views are incoherent: there is no biological warrant for using certain phenotypic characteristics to assign people to clearly distinguished racial groups. Note that this isn't yet to dispute the additional step of concluding that "Race A" is superior to "Race B", this is to undercut the entire process of "biologically" or "genetically" assigning human beings to races at all.

Still, the blows struck against traditional racism did cause racist ideologies to shift and reconfigure themselves. Hence, we have the emergence of nouveau or "colorblind" racism. This is the view that since race isn't natural or biological, it simply doesn't exist at all. And, furthermore, because it doesn't exist, it cannot be a meaningful political concept that helps us make sense of the contemporary social world.

Since the term "race" allegedly has no real referent, its usage is always a mistake. Because there is no such thing, colorblind racists will argue, all talk of race should be expunged from our vocabulary. In this way, colorblind racists are able to claim that anyone who so much as utters the word "race" in political contexts is real racist. According to colorblind racists, "racism consists in talking about race as though it matters".

This colorblind position is precisely view staked out by Walter Benn-Michaels, but it is frequently trumpeted on the hard-line Hayekian Right (this is a favorite talking-point of the racist blowhard Ron Paul). Hence, WBM thinks he has grounds for claiming that any talk of fighting against racism today is just an illusion that serves to blind us to what really matters. His position is, if nothing else, extremely simple: if you think that racial oppression is real, you are a dupe. If you so much as mention race, you are simply defending an increase in the Gini coefficient.

Thus, the clear upshot of Mills's talk is that we come to see, among other (more interesting) things, how the WBM view is complete bullshit. Race is a social and political concept. The choice between the two positions above (traditional biological vs. colorblind racism) is a false one. Just because something is not determined by heritable biological properties, it hardly follows that it isn't real. Simply because something isn't natural and inevitable, it doesn't follow that it doesn't exist. Money is clearly something that is contingently constructed by human beings for concrete social and practical reasons. But it doesn't follow that because money is constructed it is less real. Likewise, because mountains are natural and, hence, not socially constituted, it doesn't follow that they are "more real" than currency. That the contemporary United States has a top marginal tax rate of 35% is a fact. But it is not a fact explained by biological facts about the natural world or the constitution of human beings. It is a contingent, socially determined fact, and as such it is in our power to change it.

So, once we reject faux-scientific traditional racism, it's not as though we must conclude that race doesn't exist. It clearly does, but it is neither natural nor inevitable. That we are divided into so-called racial groups on the basis of certain phenotypic characteristics is a contingent fact, i.e. one that could have been otherwise. So, the decision to arrange human societies into different subsets on the basis of phenotypic traits was a contingent one, indeed a political one. We have not always been so designated our divided- so the question naturally arises: how, concretely and historically, did racial designations emerge and why?

In order to answer this question, we have to talk about social relations, the level of development of the productive forces, the mode of production, distributions of power, geography, culture, the basic structure of political institutions, in short all the things that make up the bread and butter of the Marxist analysis of society and history. This is, in a loose sense, the point of Mill's argument: race must be understood materially and historically, i.e. in terms of the material conditions of society in its historical context.

This is why we can't disentangle race and class (or race and gender, for that matter). This is precisely why we cannot say that race is a mere epiphenomenon that is only to be found in our language and discourse. Race isn't just an idea or concept which we can critically analyze by solely examining the genealogy of its movement in thought and language. Mills's point is that racial divisions are materially inscribed in the basic institutions that constitute modern capitalist societies. We therefore can't properly understand those societies without understanding race. But neither can we properly understand race without understanding how racism is entangled in other relations of power, the economic structure of society, etc. That is, we don't understand what the roots of racism are unless we understand the historical development of contemporary capitalist societies (including their imperialist and colonialist projects).

Racism has both material/institutional as well as ideational existence: and we can't grasp what that means for fighting oppression unless we have a historical materialist approach to the critique of modern social formations.

The result, for blowhards like WBM, is that we see that he has neither a serious analysis of modern capitalism, nor a serious analysis of racism. He misunderstands each, and thus has no means of understanding how both are intertwined. In this way, we come to see what his procedure really is: he takes the language of ruling class ideologists who care nothing for fighting racism, and then attempts to drag political radicals through the mud by associating anti-racism, as such, with ruling class ideologists. Why might someone do this? Because they care nothing for actually fighting oppression, and they have no fucking clue about history or how contemporary societies are organized. "Neoliberal anti-racism" is, at the end of the say, an oxymoron.


JM said...

I agree but I'd be careful about using Henry Louis Gates as a source:
He belongs to the neo conservative freedom house too.

t said...

I totally agree about HLG. I don't endorse his political views a bit- I just thought that quote was memorable enough to redeploy.

Also right-wing stuff like this:

is telling.