Fallacies of racial causation.

Quite a discussion has sprung up in various places in response to this post.* I think there are some misunderstandings, which I write to correct.

Let’s start with some truths about race.

First: race in the U.S. is visible primarily in skin color. That’s a contingent fact about race, not a necessary one — it could have been the case that the variety of social meanings that race has taken on could have been attached to any other immutable physical characteristic — ear size, for example. In other cultures, race has been created out of very different things. Consider, for example, the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. The historical origins of the racial grouping in that situation are hotly disputed, but what is known is that the Germans and Belgians (alas, the British helped) “>basically decided to distinguish Tutsis in the early 20th century on the basis of nose length.

Second:skin color has a genetic component, but there is very little genetic difference between the races in the U.S. In fact, there are many cases where there is more genetic similarity between populations across “racial” lines than there is within them. For those of you ensconced within a university with lots of lovely electronic journal submissions, read this. For those who are not, read this summary. An excerpt from the latter:

Templeton analyzed genetic data from mitochondrial DNA, a form inherited only from the maternal side; Y chromosome DNA, paternally inherited DNA; and nuclear DNA, inherited from both sexes. His results showed that 85 percent of genetic variation in the human DNA was due to individual variation. A mere 15 percent could be traced to what could be interpreted as “racial” differences.

“The 15 percent is well below the threshold that is used to recognize race in other species,” Templeton said. “In many other large mammalian species, we see rates of differentiation two or three times that of humans before the lineages are even recognized as races. Humans are one of the most genetically homogenous species we know of. There’s lots of genetic variation in humanity, but it’s basically at the individual level. The between-population variation is very, very minor.”

Among Templeton’s conclusions: There is more genetic similarity between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans and between Europeans and Melanesians, inhabitants of islands northeast of Australia, than there is between Africans and Melanesians. Yet, sub-Saharan Africans and Melanesians share dark skin, hair texture and cranial-facial features, traits commonly used to classify people into races. According to Templeton, this example shows that “racial traits” are grossly incompatible with overall genetic differences between human populations.

“The pattern of overall genetic differences instead tells us that genetic lineages rapidly spread out to all of humanity, indicating that human populations have always had a degree of genetic contact with one another, and thus historically don’t show any distinct evolutionary lineages within humanity,” Templeton said. “Rather, all of humanity is a single long-term evolutionary lineage.”

If you require further convincing about this (very important) point, I suggest also reading this.

Third, a small number of genetic traits, such as skin color, hair form, nose shape (traits for which the genes have not actually been identified) and a relatively few proteins like the Rh blood type, vary together so that many populations with very dark skin color will also have dark tightly curled hair, broad noses and a high frequency of the Rh blood type R0. Those who, like Leroi, argue for the objective reality of racial divisions claim that when such covariation is taken into account, clear-cut racial divisions will appear and that these divisions will correspond largely to the classical division of the world into Whites, Blacks, Yellows, Reds and Browns. It is indeed possible to combine the information from covarying traits into weighted averages that take account of the traits’ covariation (technically known as “principal components” of variation). When this has been done, however, the results have not borne out the claims for racial divisions. The geographical maps of principal component values constructed by Cavalli, Menozzi and Piazza in their famous The History and Geography of Human Genes show continuous variation over the whole world with no sharp boundaries and with no greater similarity occurring between Western and Eastern Europeans than between Europeans and Africans! Thus, the classically defined races do not appear from an unprejudiced description of human variation. Only the Australian Aborigines appear as a unique group.

Why, then, do we talk about races? Well, this leads to the next fact about race:

Third: American society has attached externally imposed social facts to dark skin color that constitute the thing known as “blackness.” In the U.S., those externally imposed social facts are assigned in opposition to those that constitute whiteness, and in a hierarchical ordering. Those social facts come in several forms:
- There has been a history of deliberate horrible acts done to people with dark skin color, because of their dark skin color — slavery, lynchings, discrimination, etc.
- Because that skin color is genetic, the consequences of that discrimination remain with us in the form of social disadvantage handed down from parents, which is correlated with blackness. That is, a black person is very likely to have grown up in a poor, crime-ridden, segregated neighborhood, etc.
- There is also, to this day, continuing conscious and unconscious discrimination against black people based on beliefs and aversions connected with dark skin.

Fourth: As a result of the externally imposed social facts connected with race, including the assignment of races to people in the first place, cultural identifications have grown up around race, leading to some internally imposed social facts about race. In some cases, these represent long-standing cultural traditions — racially Jewish people, for example, have been engaging in the practices of the Jewish religion for a very long time, and across many national boundaries. In other cases, those internally imposed social facts are entirely, or almost entirely, consequences of externally imposed social facts. Blackness in the United States is of that latter type: there is almost nothing in American black people that directly descends from African culture (certain syncretic religions that were developed in Haiti and Louisiana are the main exceptions). Black people in the U.S. were created as a group in large part by forcible separation from their cultural traditions, and then forcible segregation, as well as the various other consequences of slavery. While there are many movements among American black people to revive some traditions from Africa, they are just that — revivals, started in response to, again, the externally imposed social facts attached to blackness in the U.S. — as an attempt to get away from those facts and reconnect to ancestral cultures.

Fifth: those are all the facts about race. That is, there is nothing to race other than skin colors (and other brute physical features, like hair), genes, externally imposed social facts, and internally imposed social facts. When one speaks of a person’s race, all one is speaking of is those four things, and racial language could be rewritten in terms of those four things without any loss of meaning. (That is, I mean to assert that race can be reduced to skin colors, genes, and internally and externally imposed social facts.)

I will proceed on the assumption that all readers will accept those claims so far. I’m willing to further defend them, if necessary, but they all seem pretty self-evident. Now we get to the issue under dispute.

Suppose someone utters the sentence “black people did X.” There are two ways to interpret that sentence. The first is correlationally: a bunch of people happened to do X, they happened to be black, and there’s no interesting relationship between their X-doing and their blackness. If that is what those who point out the high rate of black yes-votes on proposition 8 mean by doing so, then I have no dispute with them. It would be just like pointing out that many curly-haired people voted yes on proposition 8, or many Toyota drivers. Uninteresting.

But that’s not what those who make that claim mean. They mean that there is a causal relationship between blackness and X-doing; that black people do X because they (we) are black. An example, chosen not to pick on Mike, but because it quite explicitly makes the claim: from this post:

But when blacks vote overwhelmingly in favor of discrimination, suddenly we’re not allowed to look at race. It’s not that blacks qua blackness are bigoted or homophobic. Oh, no. It’s that they are religious. Their religion is the cause of their discrimination.

Imagine I said, “Hey, that makes sense. Because of that, we should end race-based affirmative action. Instead, we should give affirmative action based on class or religious beliefs.” How many people would accept that idea? Almost none.

White people do discriminate against blacks. Black people do discriminate against gays. And it’s the white person’s whiteness and the black person’s blackness that explains the discrimination.

It is that claim — the claim in the last sentence — that I mean to refute.

So we’ve said that a person’s being a given race consists in four facts about that person: her skin color (and other brute physical facts), her genetic makeup, the externally imposed social facts about that person’s race, and the internally imposed social facts (that person’s culture, to the extent it’s “native” in some meaningful sense). Which of these are candidates for filling out the claim that a black person’s blackness explains (causally) her Xing?

Skin color and other brute physical facts obviously won’t do it. A person’s skin color causes a variety of things — it affects one’s predisposition to skin cancer (well, the things that cause skin color do so), it affects the way in which light waves are absorbed and reflected, etc., but it doesn’t directly cause a person to engage in any kind of behavior.

Genes are out too. Conceivably, there could be a homophobia gene, and it could disproportionately exist in black people, but that is almost certainly ruled out by the facts I’ve already mentioned about the nonexistent genetic differences between races.

This leaves the two sorts of social facts. Let’s consider internally imposed social facts first. It’s possible that a racial group could be associated with an endogenous culture that leads it to do bad things to others. Suppose, for example, that there is a racial group — call them the Xenophobians. and say they have green skin — who all come traditionally from, and dominate, a single country, and that country’s culture has, for hundreds of years, preached a doctrine of Xenophobian national and racial superiority. And suppose that the Xenophobians are a minority racial group in the U.S., and they regularly mistreat other groups. In that sort of situation, we might say that the Xenophobianness of the Xenophobians caused their misbehavior, and that they are blamable for it.

Even in such a case, that sort of causal explanation would be dangerous. It would be dangerous because it would risk associating the physical characteristics that are shared across entire groups with the cultural characteristics that are only shared by some — and risk blaming all people with green skin for the misbehavior. In such mistaken attribution is racial conflict begun.

However — and this is a critical point — there are no such internally imposed social facts for black people in the United States. Everything that is true about black people in the United States, culturally, is true as a result of the things that happened to black people in the United States. Again, the slaves were forcibly separated from the only culture that could fairly be attributed to them. The culture that has exists among black people in the U.S., including the predominance of membership in socially conservative religious groups, cannot be attributed to black people, for it exists only because of the things that American society did to black people (like forcibly converting the slaves to Christianity, to start with an obvious one, also, keeping black people in poverty and segregation today — but for all this, see my original post).

What does that leave us? It leaves us with externally imposed social facts. The only remaining candidate for making sense of the statement “black people did X” is “the fact that society did such-and-such thing to black people caused X.” That might well be true. In fact, in my previous post, I tried to suggest that it is true for the case of proposition 8, by arguing that society’s oppression of black people causes religiosity among black people, which causes yes votes on proposition 8.

But that’s a rewriting of the sentence “black people did X” that totally guts its meaning. What we really should say, because it’s more accurate as well as because it places blame where it belongs, is “the society that kept black people in poverty caused X.” It’s nothing that can fairly be attributed to something internal to black people — in the closest possible world where the rest of society didn’t do those things — those unjust things! — to black people, the relationship that holds between blackness and voting yes on prop. 8 wouldn’t exist.

I conclude that there is no sense in which “black people voted yes on prop. 8″ can serve as a causal explanation.

* One of those places is my facebook profile. Any reader who wants to participate in that wing of the discussion is welcome to send me a friend request (just search for me — there aren’t many Paul Gowders out there) and join in.

Further notes, extracted from my comments in the facebook discussion

1. The key idea is: there’s no reason to believe it’s in the nature of black people to discriminate against gays. There’s very good reason to believe that the things that black people have suffered contribute to certain kinds of social circumstances, which then cause discrimination against gays. We conceal that — and give a serious setback to the cause of equality — when we talk about this as something “black people do.”

The claim, then, is 1) that intolerance is at most contingently connected to blackness, while others (the media who are reporting on this as “black people hate gays”) are falsely claiming that intolerance is necessary connected to blackness (either a racial essence claim or some kind of black culture claim), and that 2) to the extent there is any actual correlation between said intolerance and being black, it’s arises from the very oppression of black people.

2. Also, the claim that white people, qua white people, discriminate against blacks is vastly different from the claim that black people, qua black people, discriminate against gays. Whiteness and blackness are both socially constructed categories, and the construction of those categories is made precisely on the basis of the superior social status of the one vis. a vis. the other. Whiteness is, in large part, *about* being in a relation to blackness. There is no such relationship between blackness and gayness (indeed, there are many black gay people).

Even so, I wouldn’t say that white people discriminate against black people because of the color of the former’s skin — that’s a too-simple claim — it’s not the whiteness of the white people that causes them to discriminate, it’s the relation to other people in which they find themselves (because of the whiteness), plus various social factors & self-interest.


13 Responses to “Fallacies of racial causation.”

  1. Uncommon Priors » Correlation is not causation, OR: there are no racial essences, for fuck’s sake. A political fable. Says:

    [...] the follow-up post [...]

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Note, by the way, that this dissolves the “inconsistencies” of which Mike complained re: the earlier post: we can make blame-carrying causal attributions to “the white people” that we can’t make to “the black people” because there are internal social facts about whiteness — social facts about whiteness not imposed on white people by people who are identified as non-white — but there are no (or perhaps very few) internal social facts about blackness in the U.S. — it’s all imposed. So it’s possible that there’s some element in white culture that wasn’t externally imposed, and that causes some bad behavior. The same cannot be said about black culture, because that is all externally imposed or in response to bad things that are externally imposed.

    Shorter version: the consequences of oppression are not the fault of the oppressed.

  3. Phoebe Says:

    “racially Jewish people, for example, have been engaging in the practices of the Jewish religion for a very long time, and across many national boundaries.”

    Some have, but the more important fact is that many have not. If a Jew (as in, someone non-Jewish society defines as such) practices Christianity or becomes an atheist, he’s still considered a Jew. That the ethnicity (or “race”) aspect trumps all is completely artificial and externally-imposed. (Take, for instance, the fact that Judaism is passed down on the maternal line, but that anti-Jewish measures from the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazis–and anti-Jewish individuals along the way–followed something closer to a ‘one-drop’ rule, looking for any ancestor on either side. Many killed for being Jews have not thought of themselves as such, and thus have had no reason to help defend ‘their’ people.)

    The difference in this case between Jews and blacks in the U.S. is less, I think, that there’s something organic in the overlap of the Jewish culture/religion and the Jewish “race,” and more that the “social facts” imposed on Jews were imposed in Europe and not in (let alone by) the United States. The same is clearly not true of blacks. To arrive in the U.S. after fleeing racial prejudice is a totally different story than to arrive because of American racial prejudice. Which means a different situation to this day. But it doesn’t mean that anti-Jewish racism in Europe was any less about an externally-imposed definition of Jews as a “race.” (Not that plenty of Jews didn’t at times accept that as the definition… but that’s something else…)

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Good point Phoebe — thanks.

  5. Phoebe Says:

    You’re welcome!

    I’ve been thinking about this more since commenting. The difference between an internally-defined identity and one forced upon unwilling individuals with no common history or will to live as a community is an interesting one. But I’m wondering whether the divide can ever be cut so cleanly.

    In the case of Jews, ‘Sartrean Jews,’ that is, those who are only Jews because of anti-Semitism defining them as such, often start to take an interest in Jewish life. (The classic example of this is Herzl claiming the Dreyfus Affair made him a Zionist.)

    So at what point does any marginalized group’s behavior stop being a reaction to oppression and become ‘positive’ behavior, that is, behavior to which we do not hold mainstream society responsible? You write that “Everything that is true about black people in the United States, culturally, is true as a result of the things that happened to black people in the United States.” Not to get all jargony and speak of ‘agency,’ but, well, what about agency? What it means to be a Jew or to be black comes from an externally-imposed definition, but however unfairly a group’s boundaries were created, once established, how those shoved in the group act is, I think, at least somewhat up to them.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    That’s a really tough question. I’m not sure I have a good answer. (What follows are mostly disconnected thoughts.)

    Part of the issue, I think, depends on distance from the oppression. The social facts about blackness in the U.S. would be very different had the oppression stopped with the end of slavery. Take the black church. It’s not just the fact that slaves were forcibly Christianized that brought about the black church, it’s also the social and economic segregation of black people since the end of slavery. Had the latter not happened, I might be less reluctant to declare things like the black church manifestations of internal identity.

    I recognize that that doesn’t even begin to completely answer your agency worry, though. It seems like there are things that we’d want to attribute to things within — and internally generated by — the black church. Like the participation of (leadership of) the black church in the civil rights movement.

    What to say about that? Right now, I’m inclined to decline to describe the civil rights movement as a thing that arose out of blackness, per se. I’d say that the civil rights movement was a bunch of individuals, who happened to be oppressed because of having property X, rising in concert to resist the oppression. As individual acts, we can see the civil rights movement as expressing agency — but not “black agency.” Just “people agency,” directed at resisting the oppression handed out because of blackness.

    That’s still not completely satisfactory, I know. There are things that we value about black culture in the U.S. (or Jewish culture in Europe) that don’t really fit that model — artistic achievements, for example, produced in direct engagement with the racial notion. Right now, I’m inclined to bite the bullet and say that those things again can’t be described as internally created Black or Jewish culture, but are genuinely reactions to oppression… but that they don’t lose value for that. And, of course, those, again, would be actions of individual agency…

    (I may not agree with any of this five minutes from now.)

  7. gradmommy Says:

    Paul, I really have to disagree with this idea that all of black culture is as a result of oppression. That is absolutely not true. Many elements of West African culture were transported to the States with slaves, and while slaves were removed from the African land, they, and their fellow slaves, brought their culture with them. While I understand your point of not wanting to attribute “yes on 8″ votes to something about “blackness”, I don’t think your insistence that black culture is all due to white oppression is the way to make that point. What do you think it means to tell a people that all that they are is due to the oppression of others? Black people are actually very proud of our ability to preserve many aspects of West African culture in spite of slavery and oppression.

    All that being said, I agree that one cannot attribute a “yes on 8″ vote to blackness, considering that many non-black people also voted yes, and many black people, myself included, voted no. I was very disappointed in the black vote, however, because I do find it ironic that people who have been discriminated against would sanction legal discrimination against others. I also believe that the “yes on 8″ black vote can be explained by the influence of the black church as a major institution within the community. Does that mean that black culture “caused” a yes vote? Of course, not exactly. But if the reason for the vote was a moral one that can be traced to the black church, then I don’t see the problem with arguing for an explanation that includes black culture, separate from your arguments about black as a race.

  8. Isak Says:

    As David Friedman points out, the trouble with liberals is that they believe in evolution, but they tend not to believe in it’s consequences:


  9. Mike Says:

    Hmm…….. Lots of good points here, Paul. Not sure who is right here. I’m thinking we are both right and wrong on some points.

    Lots to think about, in any event.

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    Gradmommy: thanks for your thoughts. Quick note: to say something is the result of oppression is not to deny its value — some of the greatest values come from the resistance to oppression, or in taking things that come from oppressors and turning them to good. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t come from oppressors.

    (But I acknowledge that there are some preserved elements of West African culture in American blackness — I made reference to the syncretic religions as an example — but nothing that’s relevant to the prop 8 vote.)

    Mike: that I can agree with wholeheartedly.

  11. emily Says:

    While I agree with your point, it has to be recognized that everything every action a person makes, every decision, every thought, is a result of their social circumstances. These social circumstances include – as you pointed out in this case – whether raised in poverty, middle-class or wealth, the circumstances each person’s parents went through – for black people you point to suppression, but the same can be said for how children whose parents were in the depression, or fought in war, or laid off from a factory job, or any single factor which will change a persons view of the world will then be passed on to that person’s children, and alter their view of the world and thus their decisions, actions, etc. Where does it end? What decision can be said to be a single person’s, when it is dependant on so many factors that are out of our control? Am I writing this because it is what I believe, or because the society I was raised in caused this post to be written? It’s both. Society molds our beliefs, history makes us up of who we are. Are we individuals, or are we the same person who has been put through different circumstances? There are genetics, yes, but as you pointed out, genetic variation is very small between humans. What makes each of us different?

    I agree that it is completely unfair and unthought-out to say that “blacks people did X”, for any group, unless every person in that group did X, or there is a clear causitive factor between the grouping and the act. However, I just wanted to point out that the argument goes for everyone and everything. If I was black, and I voted against Proposition 8, I would feel that you were arguing that my decision to vote as I did was not made by me, but was determined by the circumstances I was given. This would make me feel unimportant or misunderstood, because I want credit for my beliefs being my own.

    It is often difficult to admit that EVERYTHING we do is determined by circumstances we are given – social, economic, and our parents beliefs (guided by their history) are the main ones I can think of right now. Where is the ‘I’? What does it take for me to say, ‘I think this’ rather than ‘my circumstances led to my thinking this’?

    Looking at my comments, it becomes the nurture vs. nature debate. In my opinion, however, the ‘nurture’ does effect how our ‘nature’ is displayed. So it would still be valid to say that social circumstances play a part in even the parts determined by ‘nature’.

    In conclusion, because a group has been unfairly clumped together too many times for poor reasons, to argue that their decision is a result of how they have been treated is not fair unless it is understood that this is no more true of them than of every person.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hmm… I’m not quite sure I agree. Because, recall that we’re not talking about individuals, but about groups here. We can say that individuals are generally somewhat responsible for their decisions, full stop, and I’m happy to go along with it, situated subject worries aside.

    But the claim to which I’m objecting is the claim that a group, qua its status as a group, is responsible for a set of actions (in this case, the vote on 8). It’s possible for individuals in a group to be responsible for an action, without it being anything about their group-member-ness that makes them so responsible.

    So my claim isn’t “for each individual person in the group, X was caused by their circumstances,” it’s “to the extent that, for each individual person in the group, X was caused by their group membership, the causal relationship between X-ness and group membership was, itself, caused by circumstances which make them blameless, namely, a history of and continuing oppression.”

    I think I really need to write another post to make this clear. Perhaps I’ll do so.

  13. Mike Says:

    I hate to revive old posts. So feel free to ignore me. But you gave a lot to mull over; so mull over I have.

    Let’s say that we accept your premise that race is socially constructed. Does this mean that explaining behavior in terms of race is racist?

    Racist, of course, is a loaded term. It implied superiority. Is merely explaining that blacks (where black means a bundle of stuff inside black skin) behave a certain way, and that this certain way is different from whites…. racist?

    Social class is obviously socially constructed. Is saying that, “People in x-class tend to buy y-items” a classist statement? I wouldn’t think so. It’s merely a statement about the behavior of an identifiable demographic.

    So even if race is socially constructed, it exists. So what do you do with it?

Leave a Comment