Race as Social Construct

Race MythLast month, Jenée Desmond-Harris and Estelle Caswell wrote a great article over at Vox, The Myth of Race, Debunked in 3 Minutes. The “3 minutes” is a reference to a video they put together that I’ve embedded below. This concept should not be surprising to readers of this site. Actually, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone at this point. It’s just not a concept you can get hold of. It quickly falls apart in your hands. Even the idea of “African American” doesn’t make any sense because we all came from Africa.

There is, even more troubling, the fact that Africa is a really big place. We have seen this in discussions of the Ebola epidemic in Africa. Many people wanted to stop all flights from the continent as though Sierra Leone is the same as Kenya. (They are about 3,500 miles apart.) There is a strong sense that lumping all of Africa together is like dismissing the population as “those people” who just don’t matter.

Before there was the concept of race, we definitely had the idea of “peoples,” as in, “People of Haiti.” And that’s not to say that people weren’t just as bigoted then as they are now. As it was, people of one area often found no problem with enslaving the people of another. The United States posed a special problem for this kind of thinking, however. Michelle Alexander discusses this in her excellent book, The New Jim Crow. Early on, poor people had this annoying habit of binding together and rising up against their aristocratic oppressors. So the rich embraced this idea of the natural order of things whereby “blacks” were slaves. This allowed poor “whites” to feel superior, even in the squalor of their conditions. And this is an idea that continues to work to keep poor people down — fighting each other rather than their true oppressors.

Something I didn’t know about, however, has to do with sickle-cell anemia. This is a supposedly race-specific disease. In fact, you can still find bigots using it to justify the inferiority of blacks. But it turns out that sickle-cell anemia is simply an evolutionary response to having recent ancestors who lived in areas with Malaria. That includes Africa, but also southern Europe, Persian Gulf, and India. I don’t think that most people would think of Indians and Angolans as the same race.

All of this means that race isn’t real as in a scientific thing. But that doesn’t mean that race isn’t a real social construct. I don’t think there is much that is more fundamental to our society than racism. As a result, we can’t not talk about “African Americans” and “Latinos.” Because those constructs are real. But they don’t speak to any fact about a given individual; they just speak to our racism and how we aggregate individuals. And as a result, we need to continue to talk about it. The conservative notion is ridiculous that it is talking about these distinctions that is the real cause of racism.

As I know only too well in myself, my racist tendencies are not manifested in articles like this one. Rather they are manifested in subconscious reactions to people who don’t look like me or don’t have names like mine or any number of other things. These are the things that create the arbitrary categories that we call races. And on top of that has been built a political, social, and economic structure that physically renders these prejudices. The Vox article sums it up:

The racial categories to which we’re assigned, based on how we look to others or how we identify ourselves, can determine real-life experiences, inspire hate, drive political outcomes, and make the difference between life and death. But these important consequences are a result of a relatively new idea that was based on shaky reasoning and shady motivations.

So we continue to talk about race, because social constructs matter. And not talking about them doesn’t make them go away; it just hides them so they can fester — allowing people to believe (without thinking about it) that these constructs are based on something more than our individual and collective racism.

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  1. […] discussed this recently, Race as Social Construct. What being prone to sickle-cell anaemia means is that you had recent ancestors who lived in areas […]

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