Monday, July 13, 2009

What is racism?

If I inferred a definition of racism from many conversations and discussions about race that I've encountered in a casual setting among many of my white peers when I was an undergrad, it would run something like this:
Racism is 'seeing' or noticing that someone has different color skin from you and making generalizations on the basis of their skin (thus, part of not being racist is 'not seeing' or 'being blind' to the social phenomenon of race). In other words, making any decision on the basis of race just is what it is to be racist; the non-racist alternative would be to 'treat everyone the same' as though racial designations and hierarchies were non-existent. Moreover, racism is tantamount to an individual pathology: it's when some individual intentionally harbours cruel or hateful feelings about other individuals because of their racial designation. Thus someone who is a racist is a terrible person, in the sense that they are cruel and mean to other people in a concerted and intentional way. Finally, someone who is ostensibly a member of a marginalized group, or''has minority friends", cannot properly be called a racist.
Now the above is an armchair sociological observation, that is, more or less just what I've noticed. It's hardly a coherent set of beliefs (of course ideologies and dominant beliefs, like the balance of power from which they emerge, seldom are). But despite its problems, not everything about this way of characterizing racism is false (although, as I will argue, most of it is). Racism is often hateful and it is a kind of pathology (albeit a social pathology rather than an abnormality of individual psychology). But it's hardly a matter of 'seeing' some attribute of a person that ought to be ignored.

Before launching into my criticism of this cluster of observations about race noted above, I'd like to dwell for a bit on a seemingly trivial question: what is race, exactly?

The 'traditional' answer to this question offered by white European colonizers was that race was a series of genetic or biologically-defined characteristics that determined the character, culture and behavior of the members of that race.

After Auschwitz, the correspondence between particular 'racial/biological traits' and certain behavioral attributes has been shattered as a legitimate view. After the horrors of Fascism, many of the intelligentsia in dominant imperialist countries began to strongly reject the eugenics and 'racial science' that had enjoyed widespread intellectual currency in the early 20th century, particularly during the interwar period. Unfortunately,
ever since its nadir after WWII, eugenics has been slowly making a comeback. You can even read it in its new form, 'sociobiology', in outlets like the New York Times from time to time.

Yet while the correspondence between biologically-defined racial groups and predicates like "primitive" (or, alternatively, "pure") has rightly been dealt serious blows, the cogency of the idea that race can be successfully cashed out in terms of water-tight genetic/biological properties continues to enjoy purchase within public consciousness as well as the academy.

But critical reflection quickly makes this biological-essentialist view difficult to maintain.

If you start seriously asking what biological characteristics actually constitute a 'race', you are left only with a series of unanswerable questions. Every possible answer begins to look question-begging, or imprecise, or simply incoherent. Say you pick 'skin color' as the litmus test for what constitutes a race. How, then, should we taxonomize skin colors? Human phenotypes regarding traits like eye color, skin color, hair color, etc. exist on a wide and fluid scale that does not admit of quick-and-easy dividing lines. It starts to look like skin color alone won't get you a coherent, self-contained set that distinguishes people with certain characteristics as a group distinct from others. Also it's unclear what the import of successfully labeling different phenotypic traits could be: how does that get us to a purportedly 'thick' and substantive concept like 'race'?

Other attempts to provide grounds for water-tight genetically distinct races are equally unpromising routes of analysis. Unsurprisingly, its the case that certain trends in phenotype among different populations for historical and geographic reasons. But a 'race' this does not make. Instead of speaking of some amorphous notion of biological 'race' it becomes unclear why, for example, we can't just talk about wide variance in morphology, in particular, outward appearance.

In general, the alleged correlation between genetic makeup and any behavioral traits whatsoever is very poorly understood. (One would hardly know this, given the recent proliferation of pop-psychological books purporting to be able to explain nearly everything in terms of some half-baked account of human genetic makeup). Even among different breeds of dogs, contrary to popular belief, we have very little scientific understanding or evidence of correlations between breeds and traits like 'aggressive', 'obedient', etc.

Any serious look at human biology quickly leads us to the conclusion that there is no scientific warrant for coming upon necessary and sufficient biological conditions for membership in a race. In fact, contemporary genetics completely exposes the lack of intellectual and scientific rigour of purportedly 'scientific' versions of racism. Contrary to the frightening prerogatives of neo-eugenicists, we have every reason to think that genes don't determine race. Contending otherwise is precisely what at least one version of racism consists in: conflating social/cultural variations with pseudo-scientific accounts of human biology.

So much for any biological basis for racial-essentialism. (Incidentally, similar problems arise when we try to cleanly justify gender binarism (or sexual binarism) on biological grounds: we find a continuum of 'sexual' characteristics (e.g. 'intersex') and we are led on the basis of the biological evidence at our disposal to conclude, contra traditional gender norms, that biological sex is a more complicated affair than 'man' and 'woman'.)

So if 'race' actually has any meaning, it must be contingent, socially-maintained, and historically-emergent meaning. In other words, 'race' is an idea that certain groups of human beings have created as a basis for organizing and taxonomizing certain social relations and hierarchies. As the recently-arrested Henry Louis Gates puts it:

"It's important to remember that "race" is only a sociopolitical category, nothing more. At the same time ... that doesn't help me when I'm trying to get a taxi on the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue."
I don't know the history, I would guess that race is a far less old concept than we typically assume. But despite not knowing its origins, we can be sure that its meaning and political currency has fluctuated throughout history.

Drawing on Ali Rattansi's Racism: A Very Short Introduction (which, incidentally, I'm reading at present) let's look at the example of anti-semitism. As Rattansi points out, the term 'anti-Semitism' only came into being in the late 1870s. Now this is not to say that hatred of Jews didn't exist before then: the 'new' idea embodied in 'anti-Semitism' was that anti-Jewish sentiment was a racial matter. Moreover, the pretenses of 'anti-Semitism' were scientific, whereas the justifications for anti-Jewish oppression had taken on different (not purportedly scientific) forms in the past.

So we must note that this new 'racialized' and 'scientific' way of expressing hatred of Jews was a development of the late 19th century. But although it purported to a new development, was it really qualitatively different from other forms of Christian anti-Judaism, xenophobia, nationalism or ethnocentrism? It was different in form, but there was no more scientific warrant for this new permutation of oppression than there was for older examples. As Rattansi points out, throughout the history of anti-Judaism we find that oppression always occurs in the absence of any clearly-defined biological evidence, whereas certain cultural practices are paramount in singling Jews out for attack.

What all of this suggests to me is that to accept the biological/essentialist explanation of what race is, even if you still nonetheless think that all 'races' (biologically construed) should be equal, is already to buy into the eugenicist framework. And as we've seen, it's not only scientific farce, but it's also loaded with tons of oppressive, xenophobic baggage.

One more thing to say about race is that "whiteness" problematic property. While most American's take it for granted that Jews, the Irish and Italians are all "white", this conceals the fact that "this status has been gradually achieved in the 20th century as part of a social and political process of inclusion. As 'Semites' Jews were often regarded as not belonging to 'white races', while it was not uncommon in the 19th century for the English and Americans to regard the Irish as 'black' and for Italians to have an ambiguous status between white and black in the USA". (again, I quote here from Rattansi).

The same problems occur when trying to find a coherent basis for defining 'black' as a distinct 'race', as evidenced by the social/political struggles in Caribbean colonies over the political status of Mulattoes, as well as the infamous "one drop" rule implemented in the American South for defining 'black' (as Rattansi points out, 'one drop' of 'white blood' didn't therefore make someone white, whereas the converse was true). This isn't to take up the 'post-racist' colorblind ideology; on the contrary, this is merely to point out how unstable, contingent, and political the concept of race (as such) really is. For me, recognizing this from the start is the only way to conduct an emancipatory struggle to smash racism.

So race is a complicated matter. Whatever the legitimacy of the concept of 'race' or its grounding in fact, we must not deny that the concept has widespread effects as a social phenomenon impacting relations of power in contemporary societies. Whether or not 'race' is a coherent concept, people are still oppressed on the basis of their non-membership in a dominant group, as they have been for long periods of history. As Rattansi notes, "many millions have died as a result of explicitly racist acts and the injuries and injustices committed in its name continue". Thus, as I've suggested above, to speak today as though 'race doesn't exist' is not a virtue: it is to silence discussion of real, objective hierarchies in society. This phenomenon, sometimes called 'colorblind racism', has the effect of preventing discussion of a pernicious mode of social oppression that persists, thus shielding contemporary racism from critical engagement. To my mind, concealing oppression (or denying it exists) is even worse than admiting its there but seeking to justify it.

Re: the initial sketch of what racism means to many of my peers, I agree with Rattansi that many public debates falter from over-simplified attempts to divide racism from non-racism. All too often, discussions of racism among whites turns on constructing facile ways of identifying who really is racist and who is not. Moreover, on the question of concerted intent and racism, I think its ridiculous to assume that because someone intends not to be racist, that they are therefore not implicated perpetuating racism. Racism, if we agree that it is a social phenomenon, is not an abberration or a sin committed by an invididual who simply makes bad choices. Someone is not 'rotten to the core' simply because they are complicit or directly involved in sustaining racism in any way. When someone says "hey, what you just said strikes me as rather racist", it should not be tantamount to "you are a bad, bad person and you intentionally mean to harm others!". This is not the way to talk about racism, and doing so in this way only makes the "but I didn't mean it" or "but he's actually a good guy, I swear" character defences seem plausible (when, in fact, they are totally irrelevant).

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