Between Barack and a Hard Place - Social Construction of Race

Update 2017: See America’s Most Consequential Racial Divide by Adam Hodges in Anthropology News for recent analysis. As Hodges writes, “in many ways, white ignorance forms the bedrock impediment to broadening the popular understanding of racism. White ignorance feeds off the narrow, individualist view of racism, blinding us from seeing racism as a system of power.” My contention below is that in some ways anthropological insistence on the “social construction of race” argument can inadvertently reinforce white ignorance.

The assertion and oft-caricatured mantra that race is a social construction, or the social construction of race, is quite old. Regularly pilloried and attacked, the social construction of race is also defended and celebrated as the backbone of not just scientific understandings of human variation but as a liberal political plank.

As this ritualized game is rehearsed and replayed, it is worth taking stock of an essential but overlooked fact: the social construction of race is a goldmine for conservative political positions. The social construction of race is the gift that keeps on giving, far more helpful for conservative politics than for a progressive-liberal front.

First, there is the unbelievable advantage gained from denouncing and mocking the social construction of race. Second, this denunciation is almost always linked to promoting delusions that the balance of power has shifted to an anti-white bias. Finally, since the social construction of race was never connected to concrete political change, the reality of power imbalances favoring whites is met by naïve hand-wringing, with little understanding of what went so wrong in the post-civil rights era.

Denouncing the Social Construction of Race–How fun is this!

The Olympic sprints always serve up people who love denouncing the social construction of race. Just look at them! And in fact it takes more than a bit of history and demographics to figure out that the results have more to do with Jamaica than they do an African gene for running:

Where does great achievement come from? In the minutes before Bolt, Blake and Weir of Jamaica took 1-2-3 in the 200m, the BBC played a short film which suggested that black athletes won medals because of “west African genes” and the unnatural selection of the “fittest” by plantation slavery. If either of these were sufficient explanation then such centres of new world slavery as Haiti and Brazil would also be athletic superpowers, as would Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, and the Congo from which most slaves came, and the United States itself would not be increasingly pushed into the shade. Genes may help, but only one part of the African diaspora has won disproportionately in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. (Genes may help, but Caribbean Olympians were nurtured to success)

Is there a Jamaican gene for running, a Dominican Republic gene for baseball, an Otavalan gene for weaving and marketing? What this misses is how certain groups get drawn and held into specific activities. As my colleague Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld and I show for Otavalans and other artisans, this often happens because of a big payoff, a particularly spectacular success which concentrates the ideas, training, and hopes within one community. This can be enabling, especially when there are few other routes to success, but over the long run detrimental to economic diversification and a broader pool of resources. Just as there are far more 7-foot-tall Chinese than anyone ever suspected, there is surely genetic sprinting potential that is simply never cultivated.

The “just look at them” denunciation caricatures one of the most misunderstood aspects of the social construction of race argument. The argument was never meant to say that people are all the same. People vary biologically, and that biological variation is important. When Frank Livingstone in 1962 wrote There are no races, there are only clines (279), he never said there weren’t any clines!

But the denunciation fun need not stop there. It’s always a good time to take a whack at the fraudulent Stephen Jay Gould. The Marxist Richard Lewontin. Bash the silly anthropologists. Pointy-headed academics. Clueless liberals.

But of course race is a social construction

What’s puzzling is that sometimes when people pause to resist this form of denunciation, there is yet another counterattack: Oh, yeah, of course race is a social construction. Everything is. Everyone knows that.

Perhaps in some bland sense everything is socially constructed. But that misses several points. Social constructions are very real, and to say something is a social construction is not to be equated with illusion or fiction. It also misses the point that some social constructions are more powerful and with more far reaching consequences than others. Last, it misses the whole idea, that “the social construction of race” should have never been a stopping point, but as a way to analyze the particular circumstances that result in current configurations.

The “everything is a social construction” is reminiscent of the kind of argumentation and evidence Michel-Rolph Trouillot developed in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Trouillot navigated between the equally untenable extremes that history is merely the documenting of retrievable fact and that history is merely just another story:

Between the mechanically “realist” and naively “constructivist” extremes, there is the more serious task of determining not what history is–a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms–but how history works. For what history is changes with time and place, or better said, history reveals itself only through the production of specific narratives. What matters are the process and conditions of production of such narratives. (1996:25)

Similarly with race. As John Relethford has pointed out, labels for height–short, medium, tall–are cultural constructions imposed on continuous variation (Race and global patterns of phenotypic variation; see also Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race). However, the implications of racial assignment are quite different from height assignment. And whether there will be two race labels or three–whether a “mixed” category is included, for example–can have serious implications.

Liberal thought police, anti-white bias, reverse racism, and other delusions

Closely linked to the denunciation of the social construction of race is the idea that the truth is being blocked by the liberal thought police, political correctness, ideology, and so forth. This persecuted minority of truth-tellers is convinced that everything runs against white people, from affirmative action to illegal immigration to educational spending to government programs. They’re speaking truth to power!

Cut to the real world and a 2016 report from Forbes, The Racial Wealth Gap: Why A Typical White Household Has 16 Times The Wealth Of A Black One. These figures are analyzed in The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap (February 2013), and update the kinds of wealth gap issues discussed in Black Wealth / White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. (Thanks to Eliza Jane Darling’s White Lies at Zero Anthropology for the link and further discussion.)

As I said in Race IQ – Game Over, this enormous and unbelievably persistent wealth gap is more than enough to account for average white/black IQ differentials. Add in some of the things mentioned by Hans, like stereotype threat, and the kinds of biocultural health inequalities Gravlee details in How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality, and there is more than enough to explain one standard deviation, regression to population mean, and all the rest of the fancy statistical observations used to justify the notion of irremediable gap (see also Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied). Given how much we are starting to know about the links between sleep and performance, especially on mental agility, the new findings of Sleep, Race, Socioeconomics may even be enough to explain the gap.

It would be nice to have assurance that such beliefs are confined to the fringes, but in fact as the 2011 study on perceptions of anti-white bias proved, there is presently a majority of whites who feel there is greater anti-white bias than anti-black bias. I criticized this study because it lacked real historical data, even as it pretends to have such data–in other words there is no indication that this is anything new. Instead, everything indicates a large majority of whites were already convinced back at the time of the civil rights movement that black/white life chances were at least equal. As Tim Wise has noted about the Gallup polls:

In 1963, roughly two-thirds of whites told Gallup pollsters that blacks were treated equally in white communities. Even more along the lines of delusion, in 1962, nearly 90 percent of whites said black children were treated equally in terms of educational opportunity. All of which is to say that in August 1963, as 200,000 people marched on Washington, and as they stood there in the sweltering heat, listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, most whites seeing the news that evening were, in effect, thinking to themselves, what’s the problem, exactly? Dream? Why dream? Everything is just fine now. Isn’t it? (Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama 2009:33)

The delusion continues. Even with an average white/black wealth gap of 16x, people are convinced that the deck has been stacked against white people.

Moreover, of course, the explanation is that it’s the smart people who make money. No mention of intergenerational inheritance, the scrapping of the inheritance tax, the decline on taxes for upper-income brackets with rates far lower than the Eisenhower 1950s. No mention of one of the prime movers for average wealth, differences in residential housing prices, and the bank loan and insurance redlining that was standard practice through the 1990s.

The people who vociferously deny “blank slate” ideas about human nature nevertheless claim clean slates for equality of opportunity, against all evidence. At first I thought this was something of a paradox, but it makes perfect sense–denying a human “blank slate” means believing the environmental slate is clean, so success is simply an outcome of pre-existing superiority.

Adam Smith knew better. Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations:

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. (1776 [1982]:120)

[See Anthropology and Human Nature for more and for why nature/nurture dichotomy and blank slate ideas are untenable. See also the blog-post from Daniel Lende, Social Position Drives Gene Regulation of the Immune System for a review of health outcomes resulting from social position.]

The idea that intelligence creates wealth is particularly obnoxious when looking at the data from 2007-2010. Here are people trying to play by the rules–save money and acquire the classic starting point for the American dream, homeownership–who were gutted by unscrupulous lending practices and a housing price deflation completely out of their control. Hardly the first time for people of color that rules have been written up and then changed in midcourse.

And as for the “they should not have fallen for those loans” motif, these were supposed to be the safest and best loans, for homeownership. It’s also good to keep in mind that high IQ does not insulate against investment snake oil, whether that be Enron, Lehman, or Madoff.

Of course there is ample reason to point out the inequalities within the white wealth averages–much of the reason for the average white/black wealth gap is the huge gap between the white rich and the white poor. As I mentioned in the Race/IQ post, there is reason to suspect that the classic racialist-hereditarian argument–that poor whites outperform wealthy blacks–is starting to fray, and I predicted even greater fraying. Here the Charles Murray acolytes pour in to talk about assortative mating: but really, are they saying there has been genetic-biological adjustment such that in the last 50 years there is now more intra-race discrepancy in educational outcomes than inter-race? That kind of gene/IQ plasticity would make Gould look positively hereditarian. It is moreover belied by some of the state-by-state data “Mike the Mad Biologist” points to, indicating Massachusetts blacks doing as well as Alabama whites.

Social Construction of Race and Liberal Naïveté

One of the many problems with the social construction of race is how it was never joined to a concrete political program. It was indeed an intervention at the elite academic level–scientifically correct, to be sure, but as an intervention it had close to zero political effect. Even if Lewontin is a Marxist–and what does that even mean in the United States?–there is no political party to turn to, no true left political movement. In this bizarre political universe, moderate Democrats are called “socialists” and I was branded a “devout anti-racist” for putting up a few blogposts. Please. If that’s all it takes to be on the left or anti-racist, than it’s even worse than I imagined.

There have been a few piecemeal measures. Affirmative action has been under attack since inception, with enormous uproar about a program aimed mostly at elite institutions. There have been attempts to desegregate schools, but school funding remains enormously unequal, linked to local property taxes for what remains of the public school system, without even talking about the enormous spending and endowments for private institutions.

But the main problem is the naïve assumption that since race is a social construction, with the end of de jure and legal policies, everything should just even out. It obviously has not evened out. This leads to hand-wringing, to questioning the social construction of race, but none of this would be necessary if there had been less naïveté and more concrete political action from the beginning. This is a classic example of the naïveté Trouillot insisted we needed to confront:

This optimism comes with duties, responsibilities, and some personal discomfort. We cannot bury it under weak social analysis flavored by political optimism, the way we sometimes do in studies of resistance that any semi-illiterate dictator in the Caribbean or in Africa can easily dismiss as exemplars of liberal political naïveté. When we do that, we add insult to injury for we merely aestheticize the natives’ pain to alleviate our own personal uneasiness. (Global Transformations 2003:136)

And so we seem destined to go around and around on the social construction of race. Not so much because there’s something new in the genetics or some pristine scientific hypothesis to prove the biological basis of some trait. But because it’s just too delightful, a goldmine of payoff, to denounce the social construction of race, which can then be spun off into endless denunciation, propagating delusions about anti-white bias, and further paralyzing any measures that might be politically progressive.

Ironically, the science behind the social construction of race is close to unimpeachable. But the political backlash is so strong, it may be time to reconsider the social construction of race as a relevant message.


Since 2012 when I wrote this post there have been plenty of headlines and comment streams related to these matters. The dates and references change, but this post remains applicable. The 2013 post on White-Race Problems: White Hispanic, White Black, Geraldo Rivera could be of interest. For some of the latest academic research, see Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture.