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Dorothy Roberts on Race as a Political Entity

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I recently bought Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2011) (it was $1.99 in the nook store, couldn’t pass it up), which, how the title of the book explains, discusses how race is recreated today using methods of the past as well as methods of the future. One of her main claims is that race is a political entity. Now, while I don’t disagree here (there are of course social aspects to what we call “races”), she completely rides against biological racial realism (eg Spencer, 2014; Hardimon, 2017). Her concept, though, is similar to Hardimon’s (2017) socialrace concept, and it is already a part of Spencer’s Blumenbachian partitions (since race is both biologically and socially constructed in the American view of race). While I do not believe that you need genes to delineate race, Roberts also goes on the attack on Rosenberg et al (2002), who both Hardimon and Spencer cite to buttress their arguments on the reality of biological races.

Race is not a biological category that is politcally charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one. (Roberts, 2011: 14)

Note how this is extremely similar to Hardimon’s socialrace concept. In Hardimon’s concept, socialraces have a biological correlate: minimalist races. Hardimon’s concept says, for example, that “Hispanics/Latinos” are socialraces but they are a group that do not have a corresponding minimalist race—because “Hispanics/Latinos” are a mixture of different races. Race IS a biological category that has been politically charged: Groups look different; groups that look different share geographic ancestry; groups that look different that share geographic ancestry are derived from the same geographic location; therefore race is a biological category and is therefore politically charged (one reason) since people do not like the out-group—people that look different from themselves.

This distinction is important because many people misinterpret the phrase “race is socially constructed” to mean that the biological category of race has a social meaning, so that each society interprets differently what is means to belong to a biological race. According to this view, first we are born into  a race, and then our society determines the consequences of this natural inheritance. There is, then, no contradiction between seeing race as both biological and socially constructed. (Roberts, 2011: 14)

There, actually, IS NO CONTRADICTION between seeing race as socially and biologically constructed. Racial categories pick out real kinds in nature—which is what “biological racial realism” means. Since our racial categories pick out real kinds in nature, then, when it comes to society and social construction, whatever is believed about certain races in that society will be socially constructed. You can’t, for example, call a Nigerian Caucasian (see more on this below) because it does not make any sense.

Roberts then goes on (p. 14-15) about how “human beings do not fit the zoological definition of race” since a “biological race is a population of organisms that can be distinguished from other populations in the same species based on differences in inherited traits.” And so, since no human groups have this high degree of genetic differentiation, there are no human races, but only one human race.

Though Hardimon (2017: 99) articulates the best definition of race I have come across:

A race is a subdivision of Homo sapiens—a group of populations that exhibits a distinctive pattern of genetically transmitted phenotypic characters that corresponds to the group’s geographic ancestry and belongs to a biological line of descent initiated by a geographically separated and reproductively isolated founding population.

So we know that (1) populations exhibit distinctive features; (2) these populations that exhibit these distinctive features correspond to that population’s geographic ancestry, (3) these populations that exhibit these distinctive features which correspond to geographic ancestry belong to a biological line of descent which was initiated by reproductive isolated and geographically separated founding populations; so (4) race exists.

We know race is a political grouping because it has its political roots in slavery and colonialism, it has served its political function over the four hundred years since its inceptio, and its boundary lines—how many there are and who belongs to each one—have shifted over time and across nations to suit those political purposes. Who qualifiies as white, black, and Indian has been the matter of countless rule changes and judicial decisions. These racial reclassifications did not occur in response to scientific advances in human biology, but in response to sociopolitical imperatives. They reveal that was is being defined, orgainzed, and interpreted is a political relationship and not an innate classification. (Roberts, 2011: 15)

We can take this two ways here: (1) point out that Roberts is conflating minimalist/populationist races with socialraces (which is exactly what she is describing to the tee). Yes, since race is partly social, then, based on the social attitudes of people which do change over time. Then, in that society, certain groups who were barred from being in another group may be allowed “into” the group. This does not mean that race is not biological. “Oh the Irish were considered “not white” at one point in time, therefore race doesn’t exist since groups can exit group A and become group B based on sociopolitical inclinations.” This, of course, goes over the distinctive phenotypic differences between groups with peculiar geographic ancestry. THAT is what defines race; what Roberts is discussing is important, since race is partly political, but it is not the whole story.

In addition to the grotesque lynchings that terrorized blacks throughout the South, an especially brutal form of reenslavement was the false imprisonment of thousands of black men who were then leased to white farmers, entrepreneurs, and corporations as a source of cheap labor.

It is in this accute distinction that between the political status of whites and blacks, this way of governing the power relationship between them, that we find the origins of race. Colonial landowners inherited slavery as an ancient practive, but they invented race as a modern system of power. They employed Aristotle’s concept of natural slaves and natural rulers to define permanent features of black and white people. Race separated human beings into two fundamentally distinct groups: those who were indelibly born to be lifelong servants and those who were born to be their masters. Race radically transformed not only what it meant to be enslaved, but what it meant to be free. (Roberts, 2011: 23)

Let’s accept Roberts’ argument here that the political status of whites and blacks was a way to govern the power relationship between them: so what? That group A subjugated group B and attempted to justify it with X, Y, and Z doesn’t mean that group A and group B are not biological races—it just means that group A subjugated group B and, in the future, there were social repercussions (which is also a part of the phenomenon of race as a partly social construct).

Roberts then discusses the Census (p. 31-35) and how ever-changing racial definitions undermine the claim that biological racial realism is true. In Spencer’s argument, the US meaning of “race” is just a referent, “specifically the referent of US racial discourse” (Spencer, 2014: 1027). This is because, in America, race-talk is tied to the census. We Americans are familiar with the racial groupings on the census since they are not only in use on the census but numerous other institutions. Spencer (2014) then discusses how we can use “phonetic cues alone (e.g., African American Vernacular English), surnames alone (e.g., “Chen”), first names alone (e.g., “Lakisha”), and visual cues alone (e.g., a person’s face)” (Spencer, 2014: 1027) to know someone’s race. Therefore, according to Spencer, the discourse used in the census is the discourse used nation-wide.

But the census does not set what “race” means on these forms: the OMB (Office of Management Budgeting) does. The OMB refers to race as a “set” of populations, and so this leads Spencer to believe that the “sets” of populations that the OMB is referring to are whites, blacks, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians. So race is a particular, not a kind as Hardimon argues.

Roberts then argues against the “new racial science”, most forcefully, against Rosenberg et al (2002). She brings up the usual discourse “…the number of genetic clusters is dictated by the computer user, not the computer program” (Roberts, 2011: 74). Roberts says that the clusters are “arbitrary.” Roberts says that Rosenberg et al’s (2002) study failed to verify 18th-century racial typology, but it did confirm what we have known since Lewontin’s (1972) analysis: that there is more genetic variation within races than between them. About 93-95 percent of human genetic variation was found to be within race whereas 5-7 percent of human genetic variation was found to be between groups.

Roberts says that the clusters are “arbitrary.” This is a common critique, but it is irrelevant. The five populations found by Structure are genetically structured—they are meaningfully demarcated on the basis of genetic markers (Hardimon, 2017: 88). Roberts also discusses the K = 6 run, which identified the Kalash people.

The fact that structure represents a population as genetically distinct does not entail that the population is a race. Nor is the idea that populations corresponding to the five major geographic areas are minimalist races undercut by the fact that structure picks out the Kalash as a genetically distinct group. Like the K=5 graph, the K=6 graph shows that modulo our assumption, continental-level races are genetically structured” (Hardimon, 2017: 88).

The five clusters identified by Rosenberg et al (2002) represent continental-level minimalist races so the five populations which correspond to the major geographic locations throughout the world are continental-level minimalist races. So it is, in fact, possible to place individuals into different their continental-level minimalist race without knowing anything about the race or ancestry of the individuals from which the microsatellites were drawn. Rosenberg et al (2002) studied the populations based on language, culture, and geography, not skin color or race.

It is true that Rosenberg et al (2002) found 4.3 percent of the overall human genetic variation to be between races—but this does not ride against claims from biological racial realists. The genetic variation is enough to say that we have partitions at K = 5.

“People are born with ancestry that comes from their parents but are assigned a race” is how Camara Jones, a research director at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) explains it. (Roberts, 2011: 77)

People are assigned races based on the ethnicity/ancestry of the parents. A Nigerian would not be assigned to the Asian race, since the Nigerian has none of the features which make “Asians” Asian.

This is very simple: if both parents belong to race R, then the child will be race R as well. If parent 1 belongs to R1 and so does parent 2, then the child will belong to R1 as well (since the parents have distinct physical features which correspond with geographic ancestry and their ancestors derived from a distinct geographic location. So, since people are born with ancestry that comes from their parents, then they are assigned their PARENT’S race; they are not assigned A race, as if one can assign any individual to any race. But what if one parent belongs to R1 and the other belongs to R2? Hardimon’s minimalist concept is vague here; it only shows that races exist, it does not say which populations are races. If an individual’s parents belong to R1 and R2, then that individual is mixed race. The existence of mixed race people, of course, does not rail against the existence of biological races.

In sum, Roberts does make some good points (in what I have read of the book so far), but she gets it wrong on race. Hardimon and Spencer have both defended the methodology/concepts used by Rosenberg et al (2002) and in doing so, they successfully argued for the existence of biological races—though their two viewpoints differ. That race is, in part, socially (politically) constructed is irrelevant. What Roberts does not understand is that these socially constructed groups (“white”, “black”) still, very much so, capture biological differences between them. That they are socialraces does not mean that they DO NOT have different physical features which correspond to geographic ancestry. The socialrace concept (which Roberts espouses in her book) is separate from Hardimon’s other scientific race concepts. But it is already inherent in Spencer’s, since his Blumenbachian partitions are social constructs of a biological reality. You don’t need genes to delineate races and minimalist races exist and are biologically real.

(I will cover other things from her book as I get to them. I will discuss race and medicine at length.)

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7 Comments

  1. Rather long, but good piece. You are correct. However, it’s far better to use the term sub-species than race. It’s more descriptive and accurate.

    Like

  2. Racialist says:

    there not point arguing with these people denying race is like denying evolution and biology in general only morons do it.

    Like

  3. Racialist says:

    these people are all just extremely irrational its really fucking simply , man leaves Africa, evolves in environment changes due to evolution, becomes more and more distinct physically because of said evolution, man separates into races. how hard can that be?

    Like

  4. dorothy roberts is a black woman.

    wtf?

    i’m thinking rr is black.

    Like

  5. it is a very important point that…

    the re-establishment of the roman, greek, or russian empires is still too modern.

    the palingenesis is the indo-europeans.

    hence the swastika…not even a european symbol.

    the “never forget” of jews is tiresome, but the “never forget” of the western front…

    it reminds of that scene from The Chocolate War

    the point isn’t that italians are the monster cocks. the point is europeans are…and italy is the center…

    the eternal city.

    Like

  6. i wanna see di maio vs macron in a cage match.

    that would be hilarious.

    di maio would win in 5 seconds.

    Like

  7. Leonardo says:

    You’ve wrote a lot about Testosterone & crime so I’m curious – are Men biologically more predisposed to commit crime than Women & can the Sex ratio of homicide perpetrators be decreased from 90/10 to something lower such as 70/30?

    Like

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