Between Barack and a Hard Place - Social Construction of Race

Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine


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!

Perhaps the most satisfying denunciation of the social construction of race is during the Olympic sprints. I mean, 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 has shown 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 (see An Ethnography of Neoliberalism: Understanding Competition in Artisan Economies). 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.

Essentially what the “just look at them” denunciation does is caricature one of the most misunderstood aspects of the social construction of race argument: it was never meant to say that people were 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.

What’s puzzling here is that should one pause to resist the 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.

This is all reminiscent of the kind of argumentation and evidence Michel-Rolph Trouillot was developing in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History–navigating 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 the latest report from CNN Money, Worsening wealth inequality by race:

White Americans have 22 times more wealth than blacks — a gap that nearly doubled during the Great Recession. The median household net worth for whites was $110,729 in 2010, versus $4,995 for blacks, according to recently released Census Bureau figures.

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:

social construction of raceIn 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 22x, 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 antiracist” for putting up a few blogposts. Please. If that’s all it takes to be on the left or antiracist, 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.

Update: In the light of [everything that’s happened since 2012] the dates and references change, but the comments continue to apply to our headlines, consistent with comment streams that pop up when people try to confront these issues intelligently. While it is difficult to believe that people never look at their own US Census forms from 2000 and 2010–or ever reflect on how race and racism work in the United States–that is our ongoing reality. See White-Race Problems: White Hispanic, White Black, Geraldo Rivera and for some of the latest research, Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture.

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  • Daniel Lende

    Jason, I really liked this post. Just one comment, on a subtle change I noticed, which leads to a question.
    You write early on, ““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.” That resonated well with me. It’s a type of analysis, but not actually a theory about how particular circumstances result in current configurations. It’s a recognition that we construct knowledge, and thus a necessary complement to how we construct new knowledge/better constructs. But not necessarily a guide to actually how to do that.
    But at the end you write, “the science behind the social construction of race is close to unimpeachable.” Here you seem to come back to an active metaphor, that the social construct (say “race”) does the actual constructing itself. And while I do think a lot of social theorists have thought that way, I’m less sure that you do. So, which is it?

    • Hi Daniel,
      Thank you for reading and the perceptive comment. I think at the end of the long piece I was desperately looking for a closing shorthand, and perhaps fell into the kind of mantra-trap I’ve tried to avoid. Basically I was trying to say that the ideas behind the general statement of race as socially constructed are scientifically sound, but ironically the political backlash is such that the message becomes less worthwhile. However, I do still think it is important to continue the analysis, and to borrow a phrase from Trouillot, to keep detailing how race works, rather than what race is.
      Don’t know if that helps?

      • Daniel Lende

        How about, Our ideas about race in the United States are socially constructed, and scientifically wrong. But pointing that out isn’t enough to generate the sorts of change we often assumed would follow magically from our skewering of the “race” concept. Indeed, the social construction message today produces a powerful backlash that organizes political and ideological forces much more effectively than our pointing to “social construction” does.
        But we still need the social construction approach, for its critical insight is necessary as we build better understandings of history, policy, and variation – necessary but not sufficient, either for science or for change.
        Or something like that… In any case, I do think there is a distinction there, and that there might be some important play in that distinction. But I get your point about getting to the end of a long piece, and just wanting to wrap up.

        • Works for me–and quite eloquently stated. Put differently–and again borrowing what Trouillot says about culture–we need the concept and idea of social construction for scientific investigation, but we need to abandon the slogan.

          • Ityoppya Seba Love

            Hi Jason. I really like where you are going with this piece.I appreciate how you try to deconstruct the biological basis of race and the misconception that we need to a “color blind” society and culture. The fact is our biological diffrences and specifically our diffrent hues and colors and phenotypes is a product of our natural environment. So let it be. As you point out, it is the legacy of racism which was solidified during the enslavement of Black Africans that has overly influenced how we view race difference. Moreover, I believe that Rolph-Trouillot and others have tried to point out that the rhetoric is often redundant because it is not producing a discourse that would engender equity between the races or across difference. Instead, the race construction analyses seems to be re-hatching old tropes. I am reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s contentions that culture seems to go along with the legacy that created it. In other words, the more things change the more things stay the same. I am more concerned with the Foucault approach to. Cultural formation and how legacy “history” and society interact in its construction. What processes and legacies were enacted or undergone to produce these ideas or notions? In asking these questions I feel that we’ll be in a better position to quit the slogans and deal withthe nitty gritty. It’s my small take. And I really like the Tim Weiss mention. Have you checked out Paul Street? He writes about that misguided notion of post racialism too. Blessings.

          • Thank you for this. Agree with your take and–New things to check out!

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  • Seinundzeit

    Something very special has been posted today at the Gene Expression blog, and it is an uncharacteristic example of intelligence on the part of that blog’s proprietor.

    “Finally, this paper highlights the reality that population genetics has little to do with Plato.
    A population within a species is simply not clear and distinct in a
    sense which would satisfy an Idealist. The authors of the above paper
    nod to this, illustrating how their tests for admixture are confounded
    and confused by constant gene flow via isolation-by-distance dynamics.
    These results indicate that Northern Europeans are on the order of 10%
    Northeast Asian. Does this mean that Northern Europeans are 10%
    non-white? Well, it turns out that white people were always 10% non-white! We just didn’t know…Words and concepts fail us on the boundary of unfamiliarity, in time and
    space. Populations and genealogies don’t brook our categorizations. On
    a deep level we are all admixtures, and partitioning of ancestry along
    phylogenetic trees are useful and comprehensible fictions.”

    Unless Khan was drunk when he wrote this, or has gone senile (although that would be difficult to differentiate from his usual writing), this should put an end to the whole race revival seen in the blogosphere. But this is not an isolated first. If you follow the “Deinekes’ Anthropology Blog”, there have been some really interesting posts regarding “archaic” admixture in living humans. What makes them so interesting is the rather explicit embrace of reticulation and complexity in human genetic history, and the recognition of great genetic homogeneity/uniformity in living human populations. It is great to see some scientific honesty on these blogs. Although their political instincts must push them in the other direction, they have finally begun to accept that simple fact of human life, namely, we are all mongrels, and probably always have been.

    • Hi, thank you for this, and my apologies for not responding. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and also wondering where this all would go. I agree that there were some great admixture admissions going on, but when the Jason Richwine stuff came out, it really does not seem to have slowed down some of the other blogs one bit. I think people are ready to accept the “we are all mongrels” line for certain populations, but the whole thing will continue to be structured by the U.S. white/black divide. There has been a hint of “scientific honesty” in some places, but in others the genetic parsing of ethnic traits–what I’m calling ethnobiogeny–may just be getting started.

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  • Most of racism I have confronted is from those who claim that certain cultures are bad. My mother even has the nerve to say that there is such a thing as the “Asian culture” when repeating stupid stereotypes about Asians being devious that sound like ideas from stupid 1940 Hollywood movies. I also notice that Americans generally fail to understand distinctions between African nations and refer to Africa as somewhere united. There’s not just assumptions about biological predestination, but assumptions about cultures that are ridiculous.

    The idea of race as predestination through biology seems to be debunked by any college educated person on a conscious level. At least that is the case for me as a young Southern Californian. We have plenty of racists out here, but they don’t seem to feel comfortable claiming that racial DNA coding is some kind of predestination openly.

    A more current form of racism seems to say that people of other races are raised to be less because of “culture”. Perhaps there should be a post explaining to people that Africa is not a nation and what that means about culture more generally.

    • While I generally agree with this comment–thank you!–I am also perplexed that racism seems to be relegated to the attitudinal. The evidence for worsening wealth inequalities by race seems so overwhelming that I have to wonder why we still always seem to think of racism as a personal attitude?

      • You mean rather than an institutional attitude? Institutions are ultimately made of people. I see growing inequality as having more to do with a combination of bad economic and education system policies combined with the legacy of older inequalities. And the Drug War which BECOMES racist policy because it takes advantage of the personal attitude racism that exists in institutions like police departments.

        I also failed to address the kind of more prevalent racism that makes America insensitive and uncooperative at tackling the inequality issues because it is hard to confront racism that is less obviously held by individuals like unconscious biases. Also, your post seemed to be addressed to stupidity among pundits, so I failed to address these other concerns and forms of racism.

        • Hi Jacqueline, thank you for the clarification. Indeed, I think an “institutional attitude” or policy analysis is most in order when it comes to diagnosing racism. Thanks!

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