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.