Sunday, May 19, 2013

A question about race and social construction

In the recent dustup involving Jason Richwine, his work at Heritage, and his dissertation at Harvard, there has been a good deal of head-shaking by conservatives and serious thinkers who want to remind us that, whatever orthodoxy may now prevail, race is real and there are real and enduring differences among the races. And, this is to be expected if we take evolution seriously. For instance, here you can see a long argument about enduring differences between Australian Aborigines, Ashkenazis, and others.
But, of course, that seems perfectly reasonable. Here we have two communities that have been isolated either by geography or by religion, such that they have continued to marry within their communities. To draw from such groups a conclusion that all racial discourse is glomming onto something real in the world and that we can expect real differences to continue according to those other racial classifications is to change the subject entirely.
When people—at least people who are careful about these things—claim that race is socially constructed, they aren't talking about Australian Aborigines, Ashkenazis, the Aymara, or other groups that are and continue to be genetically, if not geographically, isolated. They are talking about the strange groups we talk about when we pretend as if Whites were a unified group—do the real Caucasians count, as people worried after the recent Boston bombings or should we go back to the characterizations of a century ago when southern Europeans and the Irish didn't always count—or when we decide that Obama is Black and not White, like his mother. They are talking about the fact that we conveniently ignore the European ancestors of almost anyone descended from American slaves, or the African ancestors of a good number of people who think of themselves as White. They are talking about treating Hispanics as a racial group. And, in doing that, they are pointing out that much of our racial discourse is socially constructed. 
Until you give an account of the shared ethnic or racial heritage of the peoples of Iberia and all of Latin America—all of whom are called Hispanic and who include people of many different European heritages, various Native groups, Middle Easterners, Ashkenazis and Sephardis, and East Asians—you are just going to have to admit that much of this discourse is little better than bullshit. And, let's keep in mind that this is the group that Richwine was talking about. 
Just as a side note, a good number of Hispanics never discover that they are Hispanic until they come to the United States. It is an identity and a grouping peculiar to our way of thinking. My own partner loves to tell of when he was told that he was Hispanic upon coming as an exchange student to Ohio. Prior to that, he would have thought he was Argentine, or ethnically Italian. But here, he is a Hispanic. We treat a linguistic group—and the descendants of that linguistic group—as a racial group. That's not serious science and it shouldn't be informing public policy.
There may well be real differences among various groups of humans. This should be no surprise. But how much difference this can make in a world that is not isolated, in which heritages are seriously mixed, is unclear. And, what differences there are will only be found at a level of description much more fine-grained than the one that informs our racial discourse. 

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