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Thinking About “Race” pt.7

Blood Quantum

Blood is a bodily substance and a rich and handy referent to a host of social meanings. “Blood is thicker than water”. Blood is not just a fluid it is also a permanent biogenetic relationship “thick” with obligations. Blood can be the symbolic vehicle for the emotions of social life “His blood is up” and “there is bad blood between them“. During the War in Vietnam, soldiers identified as African American were referred to (and referred to themselves) as “bloods” “One of the bloods was killed today.” Here “blood” stands in for “race”.

However, “blood” is not a static repository of linked social meanings, it is a flexible sorting tool. It can include or exclude. It depends on who is wielding it and for what purpose.

In 1887, the Dawes Act gave the Federal government the authority to break up Indian reservations into “allotments” to be doled out to individuals and owned  on a fee simple basis. The de jure purpose was to hasten the assimilation of Native Americans into (capitalist) society. The de facto result was that 100 million acres of Native American treaty land was opened to development.  In order to preserve the fiction of “fair” allotment, the Federal government had to count Native Americans. In order to count Indians they needed a measurement of  “Indian-ness”. From the current Bureau of Indian Affairs website (note that the B.I.A does not put quotation marks around the word blood):

Blood quantum is the amount of Indian blood you possess as determined by the number of generations of Native people you descend from, and it is the process that the federal government uses to determine whether they consider you a Native American or not.


Bureau of Indian Affairs

One “full blooded” parent makes you 1/2 Indian. One “full blooded” great grandparent makes you 1/8 Indian etc. Depending upon the tribe, a fraction less than 1/4 may make a person “non-Indian” and ineligible for tribal membership. One drop of Native American blood does not an Indian make.

Such “blood” fractions were (and are) totally foreign to Native American culture and they were not based on any scientific theory. But they were based on ideas of relatedness still held by “white” people and these ideas provided cover for powerful economic interests to subtract Native Americans from their land and reduce the Federal government’s financial obligations to ever fewer “Indians”.

Contrast this to the “one drop rule” under which any person with one ancestor of African descent was legally a “negro”. Why weren’t the children fathered on enslaved women by “white” owners considered “half-white”?

The ownership of human beings had to be justified on the basis of the “natural” biological inferiority of the “race” being owned. Linked metaphors of race supplied by notions of “white” and “black” reinforced the hierarchy of slave ownership. The color white is achromatic. If colors are mixed into it, it is no longer white. A substance is “pure” when it has no other substance commingling with it.  For the slaveholders of the South who labeled themselves “white”, one “drop” of “black” blood was a demarcating impurity that separated “white” from “black”.

Given that there is no black or white on the color wheel of human skin, why the insistence on an imagined impurity? For one, the putative superiority of the owners was a belief which needed to be tightly held. Moreover, the “one drop rule” had the fiscal benefit of adding to the number of human assets on the owners’ ledgers. Fractions of blackness in children were rounded up to whole numbers of slaves.

Blood quantum is subtractive for Native Americans. They are meant to disappear. Blood quantum for “black” people is additive, a mark of inferiority that never disappears.

The moral of the story is this: when the ravening maw of capitalism has to be fed, pay attention to the pronouns. Better it should happen to “them” than to “us”.  Pay attention to the words used to decide who  “they” are.

Thinking About “Race” -Epilogue


…what happened to America in 2016 has long been happening in America, before there was an America, when the first Carib was bayoneted and the first African delivered up in chains. It is hard to express the the depth of the emergency without bowing to the myth of American unity, when in fact American unity has always been the unity of conquistadors and colonizers – unity premised on Indian killings, land grabs, noble internments and the gallant General Lee. Here is a country that specializes in defining its own deviancy down so that the criminal, the immoral and the absurd become the baseline, so that even now, amidst the long tragedy and this lately disaster, the guardians of truth rally to the liar’s flag.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Thinking About “Race” pt. 5

The Borromean Knot


The takeaways thus far:

  • Much of our life is governed by “Reasonable” ideas that get us through our daily social life.
  • “Rational” ideas arise out of the rigors of scientific (or technical) discourse.
  • “Race” is not an idea that is supported by science yet it persists in our daily discourse.
  • One of the reasons it persists is that “race” is a notion that is bound up with our cultural mythology about kinship and identity.  “Race” encodes the belief that literally superficial aspects of our appearance act as markers for innate differences we can’t see.

“Race” is an active way of thinking that assists in the constitution of our individual identities as well as our social reality. In America, our “race” is a huge determinant or our economic, social and political fates. One of the consequences of 450 years of race thinking is that it has enslaved us all in a self-reinforcing feedback system:

The people who have been subordinated by race thinking…have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them…..Under the most difficult of conditions and from imperfect materials that they surely would not have selected if they had been able to choose, these oppressed groups have built complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity and culture….When ideas of racial particularity are inverted in this defensive manner so that they provide sources of pride rather than shame and humiliation, they become difficult to relinquish. For many racialized populations, “race” and the hard won oppositional identities it supports are not to be lightly or prematurely given up.

Paul Gilroy, Against Race

“Race” in America may not be a scientific fact but is an embodied fact. It is only in recent years that the concept of “white privilege” has started to percolate in America. It has begun to dawn upon people of good conscience who think they are “white” that their social position is the result of the centuries-long exploitation of other phenotypes. “White” is not a neutral descriptive term (no human skin is actually white) but a social category larded with invisible values and properties.  The term “white trash” refers to people who are born “white” but who fail to live up to the invisible attributes encoded in the term “white”.

One’s self conception and one’s social identity is a hairball* of psychic, symbolic, social and economic factors. In this America of ours, “race” is a major constituent of this hairball.  Changing how we think about “race” will be necessary for us to begin the un-tangling but will not be sufficient to disgorge the hairball. The threads we follow will lead us directly to issues of power, trauma and myths of originary unity which will further challenge our political institutions and our collective self-awareness:

…where politics fails…it is replaced by enthusiasm for the cheapest pseudo-solidarities…forms of connection that are imagined to arise effortlessly from shared phenotypes, cultures and bio-nationalities.

Paul Gilroy, Against Race

*Or in Lacan’s more topologically elegant notion, a Borromean knot

Thinking About “Race” pt. 4

The Teeming Others

So, according to modern science, “race” is not a fact of nature or in Appiah’s terms a “rational” category. Why then does “race” persist in our discourse and our view of the human world? It persists because “race” is a cognitive activity.  The notion of  “race” allows us to believe that superficial aspects of our appearance are markers of innate differences that are invisible.  “Race” does not exist but racial thinking does.

Among the Asante, everybody agrees (indeed, it goes without saying) that the material world is affected by spirits. Spirits are forces in life just as much as “natural causes”. Unusual, inconvenient and bad things happen to people.  The “why” of how things happen and the way things happen can be attributed to agents or forces whose motives are as manifold as they are invisible. Why did I get sick? Why did my car break down when it did? Why are my tomatoes blighted? Somebody invoked the spirits against me.

Invisible causal forces are amazingly flexible and convenient explanations. What evidence can be mustered that says an event wasn’t the result of witchcraft? If I am informed that I overwatered my tomatoes, I may choose to conclude that the strange people down the street may not have put a curse on my tomatoes…this time anyway. The unseen workings of unseen forces have no problem accommodating disconfirming evidence….exceptions always prove the rule! As with the Inquisition, whether torture exonerated the accused or not, the validity of the witch hunt was always upheld. Among the Americans, everybody agrees (indeed, it goes without saying) that humanity is divided into “races”. Though there are some visual clues as to membership in a “race”, “race” is also a realm wherein invisible “natural” attributes and motives reside and thereby explain history and the current social world.  The race I identify with is kind of like my family writ large. Those other races are indolent, dull, miserly, profligate, hot headed, intemperate, crafty, greedy…fill in the blanks as you need.

Identity helps us comprehend the formation of that perilous pronoun “we” and to reckon with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion it cannot help creating.” The strange people down the street who might have cursed my tomatoes remind us that other “races” are groups of people who play roles in our social lives that we may view negatively.

Take the situation of the long term residents of Boise Idaho; they don’t like what is happening to their city. It is growing too fast. Traffic is bad. Rents and the prices of houses are skyrocketing. It is widely perceived that this is due to the influx of Californians. Recently a young man who has lived in Boise for years, who was a star on the venerated Boise State football team found a note on his car telling him to “go home”. Recruited to Boise State out of his California high school, he still had California license plates. It is inconvenient that these acquisitive invaders fouling Boise don’t have phenotypic differences to mark them; they only have license plates.

At one level, “race” is merely a category we employ to classify people so that we can make generalizations about them. Unlike license plates, racial markers are neither fungible nor elective. They are either indelible (i.e. skin tone) or they are invisible. In 1892 , Homer Plessy, who presented as “white” was arrested for riding in a “white” only rail car. In appealing his conviction, his counsel argued that since Plessy looked like a “white” man, he should not be convicted. For the Supreme Court, however, the fact that Plessy was an “octaroon” (a creature with some amount of black blood) meant that he was not of the “white” race and the Court did not want to enforce a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either”.   On the flip side, you can present yourself as “black” like Rachel Dolezal but to do so is shockingly fraudulent (not to mention unfathomable…why would you “trade down” from being “white” to being “black”?).

Though we might want to think of Californians as a teeming, acquisitive, insensitive horde we don’t view them as “related” to each other in any biological sense.

Thinking About “Race” Pt. 3

If “race” isn’t in the genes, where is it?

In 2016, thanks to the biological sciences, there were an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States. When your pancreas turns on you, the science of biology and the doctors who implement the science may come to your rescue. For this modern biology “race” does not exist. Race is not a “natural” category. This is a fully “rational” conclusion based on modern genomics.

I am not a science writer so I am not going to summarize modern genomics. What I will do is leave you with a few little known facts courtesy of modern biology. What most of us think about “race” is a mash up of decades old Mendelian genetics and the mythology of “blood relatedness”.

Lets start with “blood”, the fluid.  There are antigens on red blood cells that determine how blood may be safely shared. There are 8 blood types, 36 human blood system types and 364 antigens that factor into the compatibility of blood for transfusions. Most people are aware that these “blood types” are inherited. But “inherited” does not mean that a person has the same blood type as either of their parents. A mother and child’s blood type can not only be different but incompatible. The 8 human blood types have a wide and varied distribution across populations of people. There is no correlation between blood types and “racial” classifications. Furthermore, blood types are not an immutable gift from one’s ancestors. Disease and medical interventions can change a person’s blood type.

Lets’s move on to genetic “relatedness:

  • Our notions of how we are related to people are not supported by science. A pair of siblings may share as much as 61.7% of their DNA, or as little as 37.4%. You may share more DNA with a cousin than with your sibling. You may share more DNA with a stranger on the bus with you than with someone you know to be a blood “relative”.
  • Some third cousins (“blood relatives”) share no DNA whatsoever.
  • As a living organism you have your own DNA. But you may also have within you the DNA of another organism. Fetal cells can get into a mother’s body and remain. The reverse is also true. This is microchimerism; a single organism harboring a small number of cells from another individual. Hence, you may have acquired an older sibling’s DNA as well as that of your parents.
  • Viruses move DNA back and forth between cells. Part of your DNA is actually viral DNA from retroviruses that originated outside your bodily envelope. This is called “horizontal inheritance”. As much as 8% of your personal genome is comprised of horizontally inherited DNA. No parents were involved.
  • A gene is a stretch of DNA that encodes information but genes are not destiny. How each gene is “expressed” can affect an organism’s environment thus allowing for the inter-generational transmission of trauma effects. Trauma experienced by your great grandparents may still be playing out in your and your offspring’s genomes. Dutch famine survivors being the most notable example.
  • Huge studies of people who trace their descent to one of the five continents have shown that there is less than 5% variability in the genetic inheritance between these groups …and NONE of that variability is associated with the superficial phenotypic indicators of “race”. There is more genetic variability between you and your sibling than there is between historic populations of humans.
  • There are no single “genes for” visible (phenotypic) characteristics. For example, not only is there no “gene for” height, but biologists have determined that nearly two million genetic variants are involved in a person’s height.
  • There is no denying biological inheritance but what we inherit is not a shared essence or an “identity” but rather a statistically complex and partially random distribution of genetic information.

“Race” is conjured by up by racial thinking…not the other way around. More on that in the next post.

Thinking About “Race” #2

Blood Works

Doesn’t it all start with “family”? We understand what a “family” is. We are thrust into one and, therein, we learn how we are “related” to other people.

Most North Americans understand that we have two different kinds of relatives. We have “blood relatives” and “in-laws”.  There is an unwritten expectation that all relatives should share if not love, then a “diffuse, enduring solidarity”. Ideally, relatives care for each other but the interaction of “relatives” is not a normatively prescribed sequence of behaviors. Rather like friendship it is a social relationship marked by the absence of specifications. *

“Blood” relations and “in-law” relations differ in a significant way. “In-law” relationships are voluntarily entered into and can be terminated. A marriage should be enduring but may be ended. “Blood” relations, on the other hand, are given and cannot be terminated because they are relations in “nature”. As the anthropologist David Schneider noted “there are no ex-mothers”.

“Blood” relatives share biogenetic material. Everyone understands the statement “my daughter is my flesh and blood”. “Blood” relations are the most valued and though we can withdraw our care (our diffuse enduring solidarity) from our “blood” kin, doing so ruptures a relationship of identity. We can see family resemblances among those who are related by “blood” (facial features, skin color, body proportions). We also like to think (reasonably) that people related by “blood” have similar personalities, dispositions or aptitudes. When we watch Rey Skywalker and Kylo Ren (Ben Solo) do battle with their own Palpatine “blood”, we understand the conflict and we feel it. There is an invisible inheritance flowing through them that links them to the evil Sith. Can they rupture that biological tie and free themselves from a biogenetic fate they reject? Is it Nature or Nurture that makes a family look like a family and act in familiar ways?

Our “reasonable” and abiding understanding of “blood” has very little to do with how scientists and doctors sitting at the top of the pyramid of biology understand blood as an organically complex fluid. More on that in the next post.

The takeaway is this: the bedrock of how we differentiate between “us” and “them” is a long lived metaphor that links identity with a biological essence.

Ask yourself, if a group of people resemble each other, do they share some biogenetic essence? Should we reasonably expect them to act in the same ways?

*This broadly characterizes our North American ideas about kinship. Some particular families and family traditions may have very specific normatively prescribed behaviors for different “relatives”.

Thinking About “Race” Pt.1

The Rational & the Reasonable

This is the first of a series of posts on “race”. These posts are a personal exercise because I feel a need to clearly articulate some of my own thoughts on this topic and I need to understand how “race” figures into my own thinking. My views are not original. I am primarily indebted to the following books:

“Race” is part of our thinking about how the world “is”. I want to begin by thinking about thinking.

In this hi-tech world, how much does any one of us really “know”? It is clearly within our ken to use cell phones but how many of us truly understand the technical workings of our phones? or the geo-synchronous satellites that give us our GPS bearings? How many of us truly understand how Einstein’s theories make TV’s, computers and lasers possible? How many of us understand modern genomics and how it has changed the treatment of cancer?

There is a cognitive division of labor in our specialized world that is bizarrely skewed. Tiny, tiny populations of experts sit atop manifold pyramids of specialized knowledge that are the source of technological magic. The rest of us (in our billions) know enough about some socially useful activity to stay alive and in so doing we use the magic devices we are provided. They are magic devices because we believe that someone somewhere knows how all this shit works. We don’t think stuff works because Valdemort is casting spells, but any other technical explanation we could muster would not be much more accurate.

While us-billions have little in-depth knowledge of anything, we have the Wiki-Library of Alexandria at our fingertips. We can skim the surface of a million topics. This Library comes to us courtesy of the same technological economy that inundates our kilobyte brains with terabytes of information. When we skim, the chances are that we simplify. The simpler a mental model we have of a particular complexity, the more likely we are to be confident in our “knowledge”. Psychologists label this cognitive bias as the “Dunning-Krueger Effect”. Simply stated, the ignorant don’t know they are ignorant and proceed with confidence. The truly knowledgable are more likely to be plagued by uncertainty.

So our challenge, awash as we are with information, is to make reasonable decisions about how to act or what to believe we know. Billions of us get through our days making reasonable decisions

Here, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a distinction between a rational decision and a reasonable decision. If you are told by your crazy Uncle Frank that your cell phone has given you pancreatic cancer, it is reasonable to ignore him. If your doctor tells you that you have cancer, it is rational to take her seriously and it is rational to seek and take the advice of oncologists.

Rationality, in a critical sense, isn’t an individual attribute. Here I’ve sometimes found it convenient to distinguish between rationality and the individual trait of reasonableness. The distinction I have in mind is between cognitive and practical procedures that are likely to be successful, given the way the world is (which I’ve called “rational”); and procedures that a normal human being in a society has …(little) reason to doubt will be effective, whether or not, in fact, they are (which I’ve called “reasonable”).

Appiah, The Dialectics of Enlightenment

Appiah goes on to describe how his father like all Asante of his generation thought the world was populated by invisible spirits. Given a medical problem, his father’s generation would have consulted a fetish priest about which witch was at work. A reasonable decision then. Today, a blood sample would be sent to a lab.

On an individual level, my Asante ancestors, acting on the basis of trusted authority, weren’t less reasonable than we are. But the analysis of rationality must expand beyond the individual level. Where traditional belief practices and natural science differ is as institutions: the social organization of inquiry makes all the difference.

Appiah, The Dialectics of Enlightenment

If it takes a (scientific) village to create rationality, participation in that rational, socially organized inquiry is beyond most of us. Instead, our daily, socially reasonable inquiry is “organized” by the algorithms of profit seekers who present “knowledge” as bits and memes designed to trigger our consumer choice reflex. In our consumerist society it is “reasonable” to believe anything you choose to pick off the shelf… until you learn that your own pancreas is trying to kill you: suddenly, “rational” ideas and rational choices will have a new allure.

We all have a lot of “reasonable” ideas about the world. Most of the time these notions pose no immediate problems for us as we navigate our social worlds. Unfortunately, some of these “reasonable” ideas are not only not “rational”, they are pernicious and persistent.

The new motto of this blog is: Don’t believe everything you think.

Do you think you know what “race” is?

Stay tuned.

The Inability to Think

The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.


Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.

Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.

Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.

Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!

Daniel: You’re kidding!

Ralph: Have you read it?

Daniel: No…and I never will!

Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?

Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!

Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.

Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.

As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.

With whom do you believe?

The Irish sociologist Kieran Healy reminds us that rituals do not have to arrive dressed in costume or accompanied by swinging censers to create bonds between people. But they do have to allow people to find a place to do their part and do so amongst other people who will also do their part.

Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.

Healy goes on to observe that mass shootings have become an American ritual:

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting … preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy. My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. …This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself, how it worships itself and how it makes itself real.

Kieran Healy, here

Ritual and religion. Healy’s insight helped crystallize my thoughts about how our home grown mass murderers arise out of the same basic religious impulses that also fertilize the Taliban. Men (generally, young men) struggling with social isolation, looking for a narrative to give their lives meaning and a community of people who buy the same storylines; these are the acolytes. The internet is their church. In their church, they can click on text sacralized by which ever community of fear mongers, white supremacists, xenophobes and misogynists most suits them. With every thumbs-up they click, with each screed they post, they are participating in rituals of togetherness and feeling the pulse of solidarity with fellow travelers. They are in their basements singing with the choir, fondling their guns and making themselves real to themselves.

They are free to think what they want and they are free to acquire an arsenal with which to exercise their religious impulses. The rest of us are “free” to be randomly shot at any time.

Sic transit gloria mundi

Laplanche Afterwardness
Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

John Lanchester essays are always worth reading.

In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.

LRB 18 July 2019

‘Nuff said.