Monday, September 2, 2013

the privilege theorist's anti-scientific understanding of race

In a wide-ranging discussion about racism and race reductionism at Lake Hermanstadt: Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs, Anubis said:
the definition I use is based on Paul Mecheril’s: Racism is the (institutionalized) power to differentiate groups of people by physical and/or social traits, and to ascribe these traits to national, ethnic or cultural origins.
I answered:
Mecheril's definition may work in Europe, but in the US, racism continues to be based on physical traits; tribalism and bigotry are based on social traits. While I agree that the goal is to end the nation state, that's not to end racism; that's to end tribalism. Racism is a very distinct concept, the idea that whiteness is good or bad. For example, people who like Christian Africans and hate Muslim Africans are not racist in US terms (though you could speak poetically of the race of Christians and the race of Muslims). People who hate Muslims, regardless of their race, are bigots. Their bigotry has nothing to do with the nation state, because it's targeted against a religion that transcends nation states.
Anubis said:
The reason why it’s good to work with Mecheril’s definition is that it comes very close to the definition used by (primarily Latin American) theorists who are concerned with the question how racism shapes international relations. So I don’t think it’s a definition that works only in a local context, although I live in Europe and I’m primarily concerned with racism in Europe. To be sure, a different definition might be needed in the US context (which I don’t know personally). Talking about the historical origin of racism, it is important to note though that racism wasn’t invented in the US (or the North American colonies).

The talk about tribalism doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because it sounds unscientific, to say the least.
I said:
We simply have to disagree on whether racism was invented in the Americas. Yes, tribalism is ancient. But racism was an Age of Enlightenment rationalization of the African slave trade: if people of the time wanted to believe all men are equal but some should be enslaved, they had to conclude that there's a racial hierarchy. It is significant that the first appearance of "white people" in North America's historical record was around 1680.
But I've been thinking about Anubis's "it sounds unscientific, to say the least".

Anti-racists fail to distinguish between two very different kinds of prejudice, one based on what people can change and one based on what they cannot. An immigrant may adopt the religion, clothes, manners, and, with great effort, speech of a culture, but cannot change race or sex. Whether the different kinds of prejudice ultimately matter, I don't know—I oppose them all—but I fully expect that history's most recent form of prejudice, racism, will disappear long before the older forms like tribalism and sexism. We're seeing that disappearance now as the word "racism" is being used for other prejudices.

But what's fascinating is the self-righteousness of claiming that failing to distinguish between very different things is scientific. A crow is not a crane. The scientific attitude is to find both differences and similarities in order to be precise in addressing problems. Tell me that prejudices are ancient, and I'll happily agree. Tell me that racism is ancient, and I'll have to insist that history disagrees. Historian and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams continues to be right:
Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan. (Italics mine.)
ETA: Anubis says I've misunderstood her position; see the comments at Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.