Monday, 7 April 2008

Why the "Race" Word is Wrong

In the days following our AfroSpear Black blogger group's successful organizing in the Jena Six Justice March, one of the things that angers me about the otherwise excellent press coverage is the constant use of the words "race," "racial" and "racist" in these articles. Although many highly respected minority thinkers strongly disagree with me, including Professor Ridwan Laher and the renowned Black blogger Field Negro, still I insist that although the sociological "race" concept can stay, still the word "race" itself must be conclusively abandoned.

I believe that the phrase "Black race" is nearly synonymous with the phrase "Black people." The greatest difference is that white supremacist groups prefer the word "race" because of its discredited biological connotations while the phrase "Black People" evokes Black self-determination. The phrase "Black People" is used to signify a political group.

Here's what the white supremacist "Nationalist Party USA" says about "race:"

The Nationalist Party embraces the differences in Cultures and races, and allows for each group to embrace their own heritage -- while recognizing the right to live separately, if we choose; and to preserve our unique Culture and heritage. Nationalist Party USA

Clearly their belief in different races rationalizes, in their minds, their belief in and advocacy for segregation. And why not? Do we segregate dogs and cats at the dog pound? As soon as you concede that we are from different "races" you have conceded a fundamental point in their argument that we should live separately (and unequally).

Here's another quote from the same white supremacist website:

"Michael Levin's long-awaited book on race has finally arrived, every bit as powerful and insightful as his admirers had hoped it would be. Why Race Matters does exactly what the title promises -- it removes all illusions about the insignificance of race, and explains what racial differences mean for a multi-racial society. It is a thorough, overwhelmingly convincing treatment of America's most serious and least understood problem. Like the work of Arthur Jensen and Philippe Rushton, it destroys the egalitarian myth, but Prof. Levin parts company with other academics in his willingness to tell us what biology means for policy. Facts imply conclusions, and this book draws them.

"The question is not why anyone would believe the races are unequal, but why anyone would believe them equal."

As Prof. Levin points out, a book like Why Race Matters should not have to be written. The only sensible conclusion to be drawn from simple observation is that races differ: "To put the matter bluntly, the question is not why anyone would believe the races are unequal in intelligence, but why anyone would believe them equal." For centuries, people as different as Arabs and Englishmen have judged Africans to be unintelligent, lascivious, jolly, and keen on rhythm. Today, in whatever corner of the globe one looks, blacks behave in certain consistent ways." Nationalist Party USA

So, there you have it! White supremacists agree with Blacks who insist that we must keep using the word "race"! White supremacists believe it is essential that we maintain our belief in "race," and they want to continue using that very word, precisely because science will never offer them any empirically-based substitute. The belief in the biological concept of "race" is the seemingly immortal brother of long-since discredited "phrenology."

The phrase "Black race" has historically been used by white supremacist groups in their battle to isolate and marginalize Black people. In fact, Barack Obama's effort to win the presidency is hobbled by whites' and Blacks' continued acceptance of the proposition that he is from a different "race" from whites. Whites have never elected a president whom they believe to be from a different "race." Those who are willing to consider voting for Barack Obama are only willing to do so because they have realized that he is NOT from a different "race," he merely has a different skin-color.

However, the mainstream media and white supremacist groups will continually use the words "race" and "racial" and "racist" over the next 14 months to create a sense of fundamental biological difference between Barack and America that actually has no basis in biology. Yet, this is very effective propaganda, because Americans don't like to elect people who are perceived as "different." They want to elect people who they believe are like them.

Every time Black people and white people use the word "race" instead of the term "the Black people" they give credence to the proposition that race is biological as well as political and cultural.

I know from my personal blogging experience that if there is anything about which many white people and Black people are in agreement, it's that the word "race" is essential to how we see ourselves and our definition of our relationship to one another. And that's precisely why we have to abandon the word "race." The word (not the concept of a sociologically distinct people) is the linguistic clothing of slavery, but we are Blacks are still wearing it centuries after it was forced upon us by our slavemasters.

I know that there are a lot of good and great leaders (like Field Negro) who disagree with me about this, perhaps because they cannot separate the word "race" from the sociological concept of "race." And so they cannot see how we can abandon the one without abandoning the other. But, it's really simple. Just stop using the word "race" and, as for the concept, describe what you mean with particularity instead of using once overarching words (like "race" and "racist") as a linguistic crutch.

As I've said before, there is no pot of gold in the treasure map where the word "race" marks the spot. There is no magic to that four letter word, and the belief that our world will change radically for the worse if we abandon the word while keeping the concept is a superstitious belief. Keep the sociological concept, but loose the word!

I can accept that many people don't agree with me. I just remind myself that most humans once agreed that the world was flat, while many white scientists once agreed that white people's head shape (phrenology) was indicative of intelligence while Black people's head shape was not. I trust that the inevitable march of science will compel us to abandon the word "race" as we abandoned the word "phrenology."

So, when I challenge canons, I couldn't care less that they are canons. I only care whether they are true or not. If they are true, then they can stand on their own two feet, without having to remind anyone who long and how hard we have held these particular words in great esteem. If they are false, like the belief that the world is flat, then no amount of precedent can change the fact that the belief stands as barrier to increased knowledge.

The most blatant area in which I challenge received wisdom is my insistence that we must end the 43-consecutive term white male monopoly of the American presidency in 2008. If anything is received wisdom in the United States, this is it, and it has to go. I am so determined about this that I believe I will not return to the United States (from Brazil) until the 43-consecutive term white male monopoly of the presidency has come to an end.

Now, I need to apologize to professor Ridwan about something: It's not the concept of "race" as a sociological matter that I believe needs to be abandoned, and so I am not urging the abandonment of "the canon" in its entirely. I am merely urging the abandonment of a word "race" and its derivatives, in favor of empirical description of what we see in our world.

What I see is skin-color-based historical and systemic oppression, subjugation and marginalization of people on the societal level, as well a learned color-aroused emotion, ideation and behavior disorder in individuals, a mental illness that is "nurtured" in the American environment (as well as in too many other places).

In this area, as in all of science, careful description rather than broad generalization is our friend. It leads to greater agreement. When we conclusively abandon the word "race" then the age of science will have begun in this crucial area of intellectual endeavor.

1 comment:

The Urban Scientist said...

In reference to your comments on my page and this post:

You're right. Race is a social construct and scientists (at least biologists) are aware that fact.

However, dealing with diversity issues still means we tackle this icky monster called 'race' or perhaps a better term is ethnicity. In this circumstance, I (and the other bloggers I tag) mean representatives from the entire human family, not just those with an obvious European ancestry.

And maybe it is to abandon the word race, but still accept the larger more appropriate definition. What would you replace it with? I'm just curious.

Re: using scientists using appropriate terms to talk about the universe in terms of the way it is - Let me tell you... Scientists use 'official' languaage all the time to discuss the world the way it is. And we're accused of being obtuse or using too much jargon or unnecessarily complicated or godless. We're told to speak more directly and in a way the broader public can understand. So speaking scientifically accurately all of time means 1 of 2 things.
1) we have lecture people to get them understand the "right" way of defining the world...risk - being condescending, taking too much time to get to the main point.
2)talk mainly to people who already have half a notion of what we're talking about...risk - leaving way to many people out of the conversation.