Post by Category : Inequality

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.

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.

Thus Spake the Zeitgeist

Zombies?

What does this photo tell you?

Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.

My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.

I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:

To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.

I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.

I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.

I am listening.

There Is No Future Filled with Reparations

I have plucked three paragraphs from the n+1 Winter Edition editorial “The Best of a Bad Situation” The link is here. It is a long read but worth it.

In our age of Republican minority despotism, attempts to grapple with anthropogenic climate destruction have been warped to encourage several varieties of despair, rendered acute by the ticking-time-bomb nature of the problem. The losses suffered by Earth and its populations — plant and animal — are neither reversible nor remediable. There is no future filled with reparations. There is no long moral arc. Ten or fifteen years ago it was possible to think of the polar bear and the white rhinoceros as martyrs, dying off to shame us into better harmony with the natural world. Not ruined archaic torsos but videos of extinct creatures would say, “You must change your life.”

So much of our daily behavior is confused and uncertain. We can’t seem to lead the lives we have and acknowledge the future simultaneously, even as we must. We keep our eyes on the middle distance — our hopes for the country (universal healthcare!) and for ourselves — and only feel the shadows on the horizon across our peripheral vision. We are everyday climate deniers the way we are everyday death deniers: we write our articles, save for “retirement,” canvass for causes that give us the most hope. We go to bars and ask our friends whether they plan to have kids.

Truly, we have fucked it up in so many ways! Yet while climate change increasingly feels like an inescapable doom upon humanity, our only means of recourse remains political. Even under the heavy weather of present and near-future conditions, there’s an imperative to imagine that we aren’t facing the death of everyone, or the end of existence. No matter what the worst-case models using the most advanced forecasting of feedback loops may predict, we have to act as if we can assume some degree of human continuity. What happens in the next decades is instead, as the climate reporter Kate Aronoff has said, about who gets to live in the 21st century. And the question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.

High Fly Over

Stay with me here; this is a high fly-over to start the New Year:

-In the name of each individual’s unmediated access to the divine, the Reformation dethrones the hieratic authority of the Church.

-Capitalism metastasizes out of the English countryside.

-The Enlightenment’s dissolvent Reason challenges the pulpits and dethrones the monarch. The new liberal state is founded upon (and delimited by) individual reason and the rights of individuals (see my posts here and here).

-Capitalism and the liberal state flourish for a couple of centuries until the liberal freedom loving citizenry finds itself mired in (what Bernard Stiegler terms) “symbolic misery”.

-Unmoored by the social isolation of an atomized hedonism, they have exchanged the agency of political action for the passivity of the consumer, they experience themselves as helpless in the face of “market forces” that are devouring the planet and petrifying global economic injustice. (see my posts here and here).

-What will anchor them? Or distract them? Is there a difference?

-New retail opportunities? Goose stepping with their “brethren”? Netflix bingeing? Life in a gated community?

At the end of Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, an ahistorical and transcendant power “slouches toward Bethlehem” ready to intercede. Our planet should be so lucky. This is the longest lie. There will be no intercession for good or ill that does not spring from human agency.

All this is to say, what you or I or “they” do…or don’t do… will matter. Happy New Year!

Reality Bares its Teeth, Postscript

During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.

The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.