Post by Category : Ideology

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” #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”.

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.