Friday, November 11, 2011

The Fatal Invention of "Race"

Northwestern Law School professor and author Dorothy Roberts was recently interviewed by Tavis Smiley about her new book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Recreate Race in the Twenty-First Century. I haven't read it as yet, but it sounds interesting, indeed, while certainly controversial.

Francis L. Holland, Esq. suggests in his review of the book on

There's a new book out in which author Dorothy Roberts explains that what we have called "race" for hundreds of years is, in actuality, not a biological reality. "Race" is also a name that has been used to refer to social, political and cultural realities.

The Root says:

"According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century, it's because, despite centuries of efforts to treat race as if it's a biological category, it is no more than social construction -- created to oppress people -- that changes with place, time and perspective."

Here's the disappointing part of Ms. Roberts' perspective, as displayed in The Root's interview with Dorothy Roberts: She says that although "race" doesn't exist as a biological reality, we can continue to use the word "race" to refer to political, social, economic and cultural realities, and all without confusing anyone about the difference between "race" and "race."

Can we also continue to use the word "bi*ch" without confusing people between the biological meaning (female dog) and the social construction (woman who is detestable)? Should we even try to continue to use one word to mean two different but inherently intertwined things? Where is the value of maintaining the confusion?

Here is an excerpt from The Root's discussion with Dorothy Roberts:

The Root: How do we talk about the very real issues surrounding race today without perpetuating harmful misunderstandings about what race is?

Dorothy Roberts: "I don't think it's that confusing. Some people think there's a contradiction in saying that race is not a biological category but we have to pay attention to race. But race as a political system. We can make a clear distinction between accepting a false view of race as an inherent biological category written in our genes and race as a political system of governance that was invented to perpetuate racism."

The Root: So the fact that race was invented and has been perpetuated for reasons that we don't like doesn't mean we want to get rid of it or not talk about it anymore?

Dorothy Roberts: "Yes, not talking about it doesn't do anything to eradicate it. We know now that intending to be color-blind only leaves in place and allows to expand the institutional inequities that are based on race and continue to affect every aspect of people's lives in this country. Yes, even their health -- but it's affected by race because the political division of race affects institutions that treat people unequally, not because there is some natural genetic division among us."

In my view, to the contrary, using the word "race" in any context and for any purpose perpetuates the salience (prominence) of the biological concept, just like saying McDonald's in any context makes people want a McDonald's hamburger.

The trademark last name "McDonald," in the possessive sense of "McDonald's [hamburgers]" has come to be so connected with a particular restaurant chain that it has become impossible for people to think of "McDonald's" without thinking about a hamburger, fries and Coke.

Likewise, the word "race" has been used so often to refer to baseless biological nonsense, meant to isolate and marginalize Black people, that it has become impossible to use the word "race" in any context without people thinking of, for example, alleged genetic differences in IQ that are purportedly caused by or reflected in skin color. The word "race" is toxic, no matter WHAT you mean when you use it.

Author Dorothy Roberts' conclusion is disappointing, because she refuses to offer a new vocabulary that refers to the political system now called "race." In fact she asserts that no new vocabulary is needed. She says,

"We can make a clear distinction between accepting a false view of race as an inherent biological category written in our genes and race as a political system of governance that was invented to perpetuate racism."

What, I ask, is "clear" about using one word to mean two totally different but inherently interrelated things? This insistence that the word "race' is different from the word "race" reflects an unwillingness of Blacks and whites to linguistically be "out with the old and in with the new."

If "we can make a clear difference" between "race" and "race," then why do we need a book by Dorothy Roberts or anyone else to teach us what the "clear" difference is?

For example, there is a clear phonetic and written difference between the words "dog" and "cow," and everyone knows what the difference is. However, the difference between "dog" and "dog" depends upon the context in which the word is used. It can be a noun with several different possible meanings, and it can also be a verb, and so you have to rely on the context in which the word is used.

Whenever you have to rely on the context in which the word is used, and also consider who is using the word, in order to distinguish between one word with two meanings that are written the same way, then you have gone beyond the average American's ability to interpret the difference between two or more things that are inherently intertwined and spelled identically.

You might as well tell white people that they can use the "N" word, as long as they use it in the right way and not in the wrong way. Is there also a "clear" difference between what is "the right way" and what is the "wrong way" in this context?

The reality is that the "N" word is so burdened by its history and the present that it will NEVER, EVER be possible to use the "N" word without evoking all that is historically toxic in inter-color-group interactions. I think we've learned that there is no legitimate way to use the "N" word and the same is true of the word "race."

Let me offer some alternative ways of discussing political "race" that help to clear and clarify the air instead of perpetuating the mist and misunderstanding.

* "Race, as used by whites and Blacks, when referring to persons, is almost always used to mean "skin-color group." In virtually every conversation about "race", the alternative phrase "skin-color group" successfully says what is meant, without conjuring up centuries of stereotypes, biological, political and cultural offense and nonsense.

* Instead of calling someone a "racist", call them a "color-aroused antagonist." As soon as you begin to use this phrase, you will realize how much more useful it is. Everything that is said about skin color is color-aroused. Anyone who mentions skin color in an antagonistic way with respect to a skin color group is a "color-aroused antagonist" relative to that group.

* Consider this: In a legal context, a man who has been convicted of one rape is a "rapist." For some reason, we feel the need to plumb the depths of a human's mind to determine whether he is a "racist" or not. How many times does a person have to refer to skin color in an antagonistic way, with respect to a particular skin color group, before they can be called a "racist"? Were Geraldine Ferraro's comments in the 2008 election "racist." That could be endlessly debated.

But, did Geraldine Ferraro act as a color-aroused antagonist vis a vis Black people? If that seems like a hard question to answer, then ask yourself how many times a man needs to be convicted of "rape" before he can be called a "rapist"? He need be convicted of rape only one time to be a "rapist" and that is the answer to both questions.

Personally, I am not going to engage in any discussion about whether someone "is" a "racist." But if I hear them saying things that only a color-aroused antagonist would say, then we'll write about that at our blogs and get a discussion and political action in motion.

When anyone brings up matters of "race," we know there will be fight. The fight starts even between well-meaning people because those involved don't even know whether the others are referring to "race" or to "race," or to both "race" and "race" simultaneously.

A new vocabulary is needed but Dorothy Roberts told The Root that she will not be the author who offers the new vocabulary. She thinks that "race" and "race" are easily distinguished. I believe that "skin-color group" and the phrase "political, social, cultural and economic isolation and disenfranchisement based on color" teach people what "race" is by spelling it out, rather than hoping that they will someday figure it out.

After more than half a century in which people have not learned to distinguish between "race" and "race," I think we're better off just using different words and phrases that, without further explanation, nonetheless communicate precisely what we mean to say in a way that is easily understood by others.

This is precisely why I typically use the term "socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'" so much that you may often identify my repeat students by their tendency to use the same terminology.  I don't agree hook, line and sinker with every point in Holland's analysis, but our points of departure are pretty miniscule compared to the greater issue of "race" versus "race."  In fact, I like Holland's development of the term "color-aroused antagonist" so much that I'm going to start using it in lectures and watch what happens.  I agree with him that this shines a fresh light on the topic which could help to force people who are comfortably numb to the real implications of racism in our -- or any -- society to take notice of what they are doing and thinking and how destructive their acts and thoughts truly are.


Brotha Wolf said...

Very interesting. I hope to get it someday, as well as use her new word.

The Red 9 said...

I was hoping you could clarify some points for me.

One: Is the argument here going that "because the term race was used a different way in the past, we are now using the term incorrectly?" I ask, not because I don't think that there are hugely problematic ways in which the term race is used today but because language itself changes constantly, and the argument that we should use language the way it was used in the past is, in my opinion, wrong.

Two: You keep refering to the idea that "race is socially constructed". This in of itself I don't dispute (at least not absolutely) but I want to ask this: Are you argueing that race is entirely socially constucted, that there are no significant biological variations or are you saying that society takes relatively minor biological variations (such as skin color) and then imbues them with a whole bunch of pre-concieved prejudices and stereotypes designed to promote classism and discrimination for the benefit of those who hold power? BTW, we don't just do this for skin color but hair color also gets it's own set of prejudices associated with it (blondes are dumb, redheads are bad tempered, etc.).

To me at least, over time, people in different parts of the world evolved minor variations to help us survive in whatever environment we happened to be living in. For example resistance to malaria where it was common or tolerance to alcohol where it was used to help sanitize water, darker skin around the equator to help with the high sun exposure, etc.

Ultimately, these minor biological variations don't mean very much in terms of "we are superior, you are inferior" and to use them as such is just plain wrong, but they certainly do exist. That's why I'm asking about the "race is socially constructed" phrase you keep using.


Changeseeker said...

Hey, Red 9, I apologize for not responding until you may never even know I have, but things have been hectic. Basically, I agree with your first point, but suggest that we should at least consider the original meaning and whether or not "changes" are primarily to keep power structures in tact.

Of course, physical evolution of all animals (including humans) has occurred over millions of years, but the ideological conception of "race" only four or five hundred years back -- to my mind -- had little to do with that for exactly the reasons you outline.

Stereotypes -- however nonsensical -- are not necessarily terribly problematic. When we start putting a third of red-headed men in prison, however, we will be attacking (with great effectiveness) red-heads as a group and that is quite a different issue. It's not the intent, says Jane Elliott. It's the impact.