Race

Austin, Andrew austina at SPAMuwgb.edu
Mon Jun 4 11:47:03 MDT 2001


Philip makes the classic error Field makes. Setting up the problem this way:
either race is real, i.e., biological, or it is an illusion, i.e., not
biological. Finding that race is not biological, Philip concludes that it is
an illusion. The argument is a trick, since race was never a biological
reality, yet the racial system is an objective fact. The argument confuses
the categories of thought generated by an objective system with the system
itself.  This line of thinking is a form of idealism, of subjectivism.

One can see the fallacy of such an argument by substituting the category of
class for race, for this position on race is analogous to imagining that the
categories of thought generated by the class system are coextensive with the
class system itself and then supposing that one could eliminate social class
by not thinking and talking about it. Class is also said by many to have a
biological component, an argument which is expressed in the 19th century
(social Darwinism), but is also argued in some recent conservative
scholarship (such as The Bell Curve). Of course, one's social class position
is not due to biology, and it never has been, but we do not say because this
is false social class is an illusion. The social class system is not
reducible to the ideology of classism anymore than the racial caste system
is reducible to the ideology of racism. Yet this is precisely the error
Philip (and Fields and others) make in their argument.

The claim that race is biological is only part of the category of race. The
racial conceptions in the 19th century were varied, running from religious
conceptions to scientific ones, but whatever their form, these were phases
associated with the development of the racist-capitalist system. The shift
from religious to scientific conceptions in the second half of the century
in the United States reflects the growing hegemony of scientific conceptions
generally, which is in turn tied to the rise of industrial capitalism.
Rooting race in 19th century categories of thought is false. The racial
system developed over the course of 500 years. The English who colonized
North America came with racial categories and developed a racial system (it
is said that the "dress rehearsal" was the colonization, racialization, and
segregation of the Irish). The English defined race in terms of black and
white as early as the 15th-16th centuries.

Finally, this argument that racism is kept alive by non-racists who continue
to talk about race is itself a racist argument. Conservatives argue that
since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all legal structures of racism have been
dissolved and that the country is now one, with the exception of a few
racist employers, based on merit. Therefore, the categories of thought
called race should disappear from our vocabulary (we should remove them from
the census, for example). We keep race alive by thinking about race.
Programs like affirmative action should therefore be ended, because they are
racist programs. And so forth.

When confronted with evidence that whereas while one of six white children
lives in poverty in the U.S., half of all black children live in poverty,
conservatives deny that this is the result of racism. They ask: Can you
point to a person with racial conceptions in their head who intentionally
acted to force those children into poverty? (Ask the same question about
class.) Of course not. This is because the racial system that situates those
children in high poverty areas does not depend entirely on categories of
thought or intentional actors. For the racial system, much as the class
system, operates through anonymous structural forces.  And conservatives are
eager to expunge from the census racial categories because this would end a
great source of their troubles, namely, the empirical evidence indicating
the effects of the racial system. They want a race-neutral language to hide
a system of oppression. (What is the motivation of Marxists to adopt their
ideology of race-neutrality?)

Therefore, at this point in the development of the racial system, what the
preservation of race-ethnic arrangements depends on far more than racist
actors acting on the basis of race-ethnic hatred, is the denial by whites
that the people living in poverty areas are there because of the racial
system. But in order to talk about the racial system one must point out the
fact that those who live in high poverty areas are the people that whites
define as black. Then conservatives (and evidently some Marxists) claim that
this is racializing the problem, and even accuse those who struggle against
the racial system of being racist. But in reality conservatives have smartly
recoded their racism in race-neutral terms, and evidently some on the left
have been so dazzled by the sophistication of the new right's approach that
they have joined in the chorus of voices asking us to dissimulate white
racial power by attempting to remove from our language the racial categories
that in fact reflect the existence of the racial system. So we see, idealism
is not harmless.

And so finding out that race is not a biological category (which clearly it
isn't) becomes a racist tool by legitimating the dismissal of race as a
force structuring the lives of human beings in capitalist society.

One more thing. Carrol's claim that my thinking about race is a
rationalization to justify the work of Goldhagen is simply otherworldly.
Does Carrol Cox hate Goldhagen so much that the question of whether a racial
structure exists becomes an opportunity to drag Goldhagen into the
discussion and accuse me of having "an agenda"? The irrelevance of Goldhagen
to this discussion points quite clearly to an agenda, but it isn't mine.

Andrew Austin
Green Bay, WI



-----Original Message-----
From: Philip Ferguson
To: marxism at lists.panix.com
Sent: 6/4/2001 12:51 AM
Subject: Re: Race

Andrew says:
> Race is much more than a category of thought. It is a social reality
just as
> class is. It is objective and largely operates independent of
consciousness.
> The racial system is a real social structure.


This would suggest that the social structure called race has a history
of its own, separate from, although persumably Andrew would think it
intersected with, capitalism.  This is rather reminiscewnt of
Althusser's view of ideology as a structure of its own.

Yet we know that race actually does not exist.  It is a category of
thought invented in the nineteenth century, the great era of
categorisation, in order to explain difference - in particular where
difference was connected with inequality.

If race really were "objective" and "operated independently of
consciousness", it would be necessary to explain what the nature and
basis of this 'race' were.  Is race intrinsic?  On what basis?  If not,
then it must be socially constructed, at an ideological level.

There are a number of attempts to explain the link between 'race',
racism and capitalism.  The most convincing, in my opinion, is advanced
by Wallerstein in a short paper on racism and sexism.  He argues that
these ideologies arose out of the need to explain inequality - a need
which only arose with the advent of capitalism, as in pre-capitalist
class societies there were no notions of equality.  Inequality therefore
never had to be explained or justified.  Capitalism promised liberty,
equality and fraternity - but was unable to deliver them.  The
disjuncture between promise and reality had to be explained.

Robert Miles, the author of an excellent book on unfree labour, has
written a great deal on race and reification.  It is his primary area of
expertise.  In "Racism after 'race' relations", in the opening chapter,
he provides a devastating critique of the way in which race is treated
as a real, objective category.

Like Barbara Fields, Miles also makes the point that the struggle
against racism is not helped by the deployment of the same categories as
used by the racists, who also insist that race is real.

Philip Ferguson





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